Gretna council’s vote fails to satisfy train opponents _lowres

Advocate staff photo by CHAD CALDER -- Residents at the Gretna City Council meeting Wednesday hold up signs opposing a proposed coal export facility in Plaquemines Parish. They fear rail cars passing through Jefferson Parish on their way to the terminal will endanger public health.

The Gretna City Council unanimously approved a resolution Wednesday night supporting a proposal to reroute the railroad tracks out of Gretna.

However, dozens of area residents who attended the meeting called the non-binding resolution a toothless gesture that will do nothing to prevent coal-filled trains from rumbling by their homes if a proposed coal export facility in nearby Plaquemines Parish becomes a reality.

The residents, organized by the Clean Gulf Commercial Coalition, said the unfunded, decade-old study by the New Orleans Regional Planning Commission on relocating the tracks won’t help them if the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approves a permit for the RAM Terminal export facility near Myrtle Grove and it starts drawing railcars through West Bank communities.

“My kids will probably be out of the house by the time of the rerouting,” said Jennifer Holly, who just moved to a house on Madison Street with her two children.

The group, which came with signs reading “No Coal Trains,” wanted the resolution amended to specifically oppose the RAM Terminal, but the council was unwilling to do that.

The resolution noted Gretna has no power to regulate rail activity or affect developments in neighboring parishes.

But Gerry Pusateri, who lives on Fifth Street in Harvey, was one of many speakers frustrated with the council’s unwillingness to go on the record opposing the project.

“Y’all are saying, in an affirmative manner, that what we’re for is giving (the problem) to somebody else,” he said. “Y’all are going to vote for passing on the problem to us. I can’t believe that.”

Westwego approved a resolution last month opposing coal cars in its community.

Devin Martin, an organizer for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Exports Campaign, said in an interview earlier in the day that asking cities like Gretna and Westwego to go on record opposing the project is important even though they can’t directly influence the outcome.

He said three of six coal projects in the Pacific Northwest that appeared headed for approval in 2011 and 2012 were stopped by efforts based on grassroots organizing, and the remaining projects are getting greater environmental scrutiny.

“It has to start somewhere,” he said.

If the Corps grants its permit, RAM will need only local building permits, which it is expected to receive. This would leave a lawsuit as the only obstacle to the RAM terminal.

The Clean Gulf Commerce Coalition, which includes the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, Sierra Club, Gulf Restoration Network and Lower Mississippi Riverkeeper, began working earlier this year to call attention to the prospect of increased rail traffic and coal-filled cars rumbling through Gretna, Marrero and Algiers.

Wednesday’s meeting was contentious at times, and the council asked speakers several times to talk only about moving the tracks, not the RAM terminal. The 5-0 vote was greeted with jeers.

But Mayor Belinda Constant sounded a conciliatory note after the vote, saying she doubts the council members and speakers are that far apart.

She said there will be further meetings and hearings about rail traffic, and that people would be notified.

“This is not the end,” she said. “This is the beginning.”