PLAQUEMINES PARISH, LA – Community and environmental advocates Thursday alerted state transportation officials to a government study showing that increased train traffic of the kind now under discussion for Plaquemines and Jefferson parishes would present “an unacceptable risk to public safety.”
In a letter to the New Orleans Regional Planning Commission and the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development, the Clean Gulf Commerce Coalition (CGCC) cited the planning commission’s own study, which concluded that increasing heavy-cargo train traffic on the largely unused tracks in Plaquemines and Jefferson would be “impractical” and “unsafe.”[i]
“Statistically, something will eventually go wrong at the worst possible time,” the study said.
CGCC is a coalition of environmental and community organizations, including Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN), Sierra Club, Gulf Restoration Network, and Lower Mississippi Riverkeeper.
“The study plainly says more train traffic would tie up emergency vehicles enough to present a real danger to people who live here,” said Devin Martin, a Sierra Club organizer and resident of the McDonoughville neighborhood of Gretna and Algiers, which would be impacted by new train traffic. “But these new proposals under consideration would do exactly that. Why should our neighborhoods suffer just so out-of-state coal companies can make more money? We need to focus on restoring, protecting, and improving our communities in Louisiana, rather than being the last dumping ground for a dying industry that has nowhere left to go.”
Community residents and environmental advocates will meet June 10 at 7 pm at the Gretna Community Center, 1700 Monroe St., to discuss the impact of train traffic on their communities and ways to address the dangers that coal trains could present to West Bank residents. The meeting is open to the public and is expected to draw dozens of residents, homeowners, health professionals and others concerned about train traffic.
The Rio Grande Pacific Corp. hopes to expand the old New Orleans and Gulf Coast Railroad (NOGC) tracks by six miles to reach Port Sulphur’s International Marine Terminal, a coal terminal undergoing expansion to accommodate increased export to overseas markets. The railroad expansion would also extend the tracks to a 550-acre tract that was recently bought by the Port of Plaquemines and would make the port accessible to trains carrying coal and other freight for export, according to local media reports.
With the expansion, freight traffic could dramatically increase since the line would also service the proposed RAM coal export terminal and the proposed NOLA Oil Tank facility. Coal and oil trains could run through Gretna, Belle Chasse, Marrero and other communities throughout the West Bank in Jefferson and Plaquemines Parishes.
“We absolutely do not want mile long coal trains running through our neighborhoods,” said Warren Lawrence, a resident of Myrtle Grove and an outspoken critic of the impact of transporting and exporting coal through the region. “They will blow coal dust all over the place, make a bunch of noise, and block up traffic. Imagine if there’s an emergency on one side of the tracks and it takes forever for the train to pass so the ambulance can get through. There are neighborhoods in Belle Chasse that are completely locked in by this railroad. This could be really dangerous.”
The study cited by the groups – known as the 2002 Plaquemines Parish Intermodal Feasibility Study – was conducted by the New Orleans Regional Planning Commission for several parishes, including Jefferson and Plaquemines. Its purpose was to gauge the wisdom and safety of upgrading the old rail infrastructure so it could be used to transport cargo to the then-proposed Millennium Port, which was never built.
The planning commission’s feasibility study found that the existing rail infrastructure could not meet the demands “of a major containerized cargo facility” because the tracks have too many grade crossings, too few signals and other “structural problems.”
The report said that in Gretna and Belle Chasse, trains would have to slow down to ten miles per hour and that clearing any particular road or intersection would take at least six minutes. The study said, “Even longer blockages would be possible if an accident or train braking problem suddenly stopped the train at the wrong location.” Since blockages could tie up emergency vehicles as well as regular traffic, the increased train traffic would present “an unacceptable risk to public safety.”
Because there’s been no major investment in the railroad infrastructure since the Millennium Port proposal, the problems identified in the feasibility study could only be more serious now.
The dangers of both coal and oil trains have drawn national attention because of several recent, highly publicized derailments. In April in Lynchburg, Va., an oil train derailed, and cars carrying Bakken oil burst into flames, according to media reports. The accident, the sixth fiery derailment in less than a year, also dumped 30,000 gallons of oil into the James River.
In May, 50 coal train cars jumped the track in the Minnesota town of Pillager – leaving behind gargantuan pieces of twisted steel and piles of coal as high as the train cars – and a train carrying 8,000 tons of coal derailed in Bowie, Maryland, leaving a similar mess. In a 2012 coal train derailment in Maryland, two young women were killed, buried under coal or the train itself, according to media reports. In a coal train derailment in Chicago in 2012, two men were killed when a bridge collapsed under the weight of a coal train, according to media reports.
According to a U.S. Department of Transportation database, there were 1266 derailments in 2013.
Gulf Restoration Network (HealthyGulf.org) is a 20-year-old non-profit dedicated to empowering people to protect and restore the health of the Gulf of Mexico. Gulf Restoration Network has joined a multi-state coalition of individuals and groups, the Clean Gulf Commerce Coalition (CleanGulfCommerceCoalition.org), to stop the construction of new terminals, prevent the expansion of coal exports in the Gulf, and address ongoing pollution at existing terminals. The Clean Gulf Commerce Coalition includes Air Alliance Houston, Gulf Restoration Network, Louisiana Bucket Brigade, Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN), Public Citizen Texas, Sierra Club, Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (TEJAS), and Texas Organizing Project (TOP).