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September 18, 2014

Tide Turning Against Coal Exports in Louisiana

Gretna City Council meeting

On a steamy evening earlier this month, dozens of residents of Gretna, Louisiana, which sits immediately across the Mississippi River from New Orleans, arrived at a City Council meeting, steeled for battle in their fight against a proposed coal export terminal in Plaquemines Parish on the Gulf Coast.

But instead of the pushback the activists had received for the last two months, the City Council unanimously passed a resolution calling on the Army Corps of Engineers to hold public hearings and conduct a comprehensive environmental study of Armstrong Coal's RAM coal export terminal before issuing any permit.

Gretna City Council meeting

"This was the outcome of an entire summer of outreach by the Sierra Club, our partners in the Gulf Restoration Network, and the Clean Gulf Commerce Coalition," says Devin Martin, a New Orleans-based organizer with the Club's Beyond Coal campaign. "We made a big push to generate turnout and demonstrate public opposition to the export terminal at the previous council meeting in August, and more than 100 people attended -- it was standing room only."

Gretna City Council meeting

Local activists distributed over 500 yards signs, conducted multiple canvasses, phone-banks, and outreach events, and generated more than 30 media hits in the month leading up to the September 10 meeting. "The Council was no longer able to ignore this campaign or the pleas of their constituents, and decided to take action," Martin says.

"As the Parish (county) seat, Gretna is strategically important in the campaign against the RAM terminal," Martin says. "At the beginning of our campaign we stressed the possibility of mile-long, uncovered coal trains rumbling through historic neighborhoods, and we expanded it to how the RAM Terminal also threatens coastal restoration in Louisiana -- a paramount issue for a state in which land is disappearing at the rate of a football field every hour."

In June, the neighboring city of Westwego passed a resolution opposing coal trains, but the Gretna City Council proceeded more cautiously, even after hearing testimony from local residents who raised the specter of uncovered rail cars spewing coal dust throughout communities in the area.

Gretna City Council meeting

Then on September 17, the Jefferson Parish Council unanimously passed a resolution directing the Army Corps of Engineers to conduct an environmental study and host a series of public meetings on the project.

"Jefferson Parish is one of the most staunchly conservative Parishes in the state -- in the entire region, actually," Martin says. "This is a turning point for this campaign and for the political climate in Louisiana."

Martin addressed the Council, praising them for passing the resolution and stressing how Jefferson Parish can be both environmentally friendly and friendly to business. "[The Council] showed some tremendous leadership standing up for coastal restoration and putting up this resolution," he told the New Orleans Times-Picayune. "We're really, really happy to see politicians in Louisiana who are not afraid to champion coastal restoration."

Martin gives a shout-out to the hard work of "our amazing volunteer team, especially Laurie Ledet and Gayle Bertucci, two warriors who never once shied away from their natural roles as leaders." He also praises Nancy Nusser of Public Citizen, Raleigh Hoke of the Gulf Restoration Network, and Jenna Garland of the Sierra Club, "who helped to make this campaign a media sensation over the summer and elevate the voices of residents."

Martin also singles out "the tireless and amazing leadership of the Gulf Restoration Network's senior organizer Grace Morris, who helped turn this campaign from what seemed a hopeless fight against an almost completely permitted terminal into one that has a motivated mass of people and the momentum needed to stop the coal freight trains from coming to town."

Learn more about what the Sierra Club is doing to fight coal exports.

All photos by Jeffrey Dubinsky

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