Gretna elected officials have come out unanimously against a proposed oil-export terminal in Plaquemines Parish that would send train cars filled with crude oil through the heart of the city, calling the proposal a threat to the quality of life and safety of Gretna's citizens.
The city's mayor, police chief and City Council members issued a statement Thursday opposing the project, which would add more rail activity to a system that already operates unusually close to pedestrians and vehicles.
Coincidentally, early Friday afternoon, a train carrying grain derailed in Gretna, closing several streets for an estimated 48 hours. There were no injuries, but the incident highlighted the close interaction between the railroads and Gretna.
Industrial rail lines run along Gretna's residential streets, sharing space with cars. Conductors sometimes have to stop the trains, get out and knock on front doors to get people to move their cars. Pastors have to stop sermons in churches as they wait for noisy trains to pass.
Under the new proposal, cars would be carrying crude oil to a proposed $2.5 billion crude oil export terminal in the Myrtle Grove area, nearly 25 miles downriver from Gretna.
The terminal would be adjacent to a major planned project to divert sediment and water from the Mississippi River into Barataria Bay at Myrtle Grove to help rebuild coastal wetlands.
Despite concerns from some environmentalists, the proposed oil terminal last month received a preliminary OK from the state's Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority.
The project envisions much of the oil arriving at the terminal via a 700-mile pipeline that has yet to be built. However, some of the oil would come by rail, and the plan calls for New Orleans & Gulf Coast Railway Co. to acquire property and build a new spur from the existing line near Richard Street in downtown Gretna to the one that crosses Stumpf Boulevard near the West Bank Expressway. Those lines are currently connected by a switching yard in the area known as Gouldsboro at the northern end of the city.
City officials are upset at the mere notion of expanded train traffic. But there are also concerns about the cargo. The crude oil the trains would carry has earned them the nickname "bomb trains" among environmental groups. In 2013, a train carrying crude oil exploded in a town in Quebec, killing 47 people.
"Bringing 'bomb trains' through crowded urban areas is just one of the many unnecessary risks of the proposed Plaquemines oil export terminal," said Kendall Dix, an organizer with the environmental group Healthy Gulf. "It's madness that (the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority) has given its blessing to an industrial project that will sabotage its signature $1.4 billion land-building project when the Louisiana coast is sinking into the ocean."
He added: "Are we really going to let an out-of-state company bring in out-of-state oil destined for outside the country just so we can say we created 35 jobs? What do the residents of Jefferson Parish get out of taking on all the extra traffic and risk of explosions and spills?"
Dix also questioned company estimates of the number of trainloads of oil per week.
But Robert Bach, president of the Rio Grande Pacific Corp., the company that owns the New Orleans & Gulf Coast Railway Co., said the project would actually enhance safety along the line. Currently, trains moving from Westwego go through downtown Gretna and then to the Gouldsboro yards, where they are switched and sent back out along Madison Avenue and southward.
"The curve," as Bach termed the new track, would shorten the distance trains have to travel by more than 3,000 feet, meaning they would be in Gretna for less time. What's more, he added, the curve would reduce the number of crossings and remove the need for trains to travel along Madison Avenue. They would still have to go along 4th Street in downtown Gretna.
Gretna Mayor Belinda Constant said the project first came to the city’s attention about three weeks ago, when a resident called saying that several property owners had been called to a meeting with railroad officials about selling their property. The resident told her the word “expropriation” was used and wanted to know what was going on.
“I was sick to my stomach,” Constant said. “It’s like I was kicked in the gut.”
The letter from Gretna officials, signed by Constant, Police Chief Arthur Lawson and all five council members, said the proposed project would be "a major disruption to the citizens and business owners of the city and would pose health and safety risks to people of the area."
Constant said Gretna has more railroad crossings in a 5-square-mile area than any other municipality in the state.
"This just doesn’t exist anyplace else, and to think you can expand (it) is craziness,” she said.
Constant has called a public meeting for May 29 at 6 p.m. at Gretna City Hall. She said she also will contact Jefferson Parish President Mike Yenni in the coming days.
The city noted that passing trains can cut off residents from emergency medical services and fire trucks in times of need.
In addition to concern about derailments involving hazardous materials, Gretna officials say boosting rail activity in commercial and residential neighborhoods conflicts with the city's established economic development plans.
In Westwego, Mayor Joe Peoples said he had not been made aware of the project but that he would look into its potential effects there.
This is not the first time the prospect of increased industrial activity on local rail tracks has rankled environmental groups and local residents. In 2014, a proposal by RAM Terminals to build a coal terminal at the same site in Plaquemines Parish caught the attention of the Sierra Club, which mounted a public awareness campaign.
That campaign focused on the project's likely negative effect on the Mid-Barataria diversion project and the prospect of uncovered coal cars rumbling past houses, possibly covering houses and people with coal dust.
The Westwego City Council quickly voted to oppose that project — a largely symbolic gesture, though one that the councils in Gretna and Jefferson Parish were not willing to make. However, they did both ultimately call for further studies, and the Gretna council took a symbolic vote supporting moving the tracks. The RAM Terminals project was ultimately dropped.