A coalition of neighborhood activists who protest rerouting freight trains through several New Orleans neighborhoods has gained the support of a well-known human rights attorney.
The Coalition United Against the Middle Belt has teamed with attorney Monique Hardin, the co-founder of Advocates for Environmental Human Rights. The team is preparing for the release of an environmental study that could potentially support a plan to reroute mile-long freight trains through a middle section of New Orleans.
At a packed meeting Thursday evening, more than a hundred turned out to represent the Mid-City, Hollygrove-Dixon and Palm Air neighborhoods that could be affected by the decision. Hardin urged residents to write down their concerns so she could prepare a potential lawsuit, should she find the neighbors’ rights violated by the yet-released study.
“We might be looking at a draft environmental impact study that is not meaningful nor reflects all the effects you have all talked about over the months,” Hardin told residents.
A scoping meeting was held by federal railroad officials in the winter of 2012, which was supposed to be an opportunity for residents to voice their concerns about the train rerouting plan, and a basis for this pending study. However, Hardin says that residents were never properly informed about the meeting or its purpose.
“It was never clearly transmitted to the public,” she added. “I believe they have shortchanged you all in this process.”
In the meantime, the plan is on hold while federal and state officials iron out plans. The Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development is working with the Federal Railroad Administration on a draft environmental study, originally slated to come out this summer.
Transportation officials last said they were considering two options — a Middle Belt that would reroute the trains, or the Back Belt, which would keep the trains in Old Metairie but update the tracks. The Middle Belt proposal of the New Orleans Rail Gateway Program could ultimately result in at least 30 freight trains a day barreling through Mid-City and Hollygrove’s quiet neighborhood, Councilwoman Susan Guidry has said.
Before any construction is done, however, officials are legally required to present affected neighbors with the draft study. Now, DOTD officials say that study has been pushed back to sometime between the fall of this year and spring of 2015. According to Hardin, the delay gives more time to prepare for a response.
By the end of the meeting, organizers had gathered residents’ concerns and filed them under categories including economic effects, human health and safety and environmental impacts.
Residents seemed very concerned about decrease in property value and decrease of access to parks and facilities due to track expansion. Air pollution, the effects on surrounding water quality and potential hazardous materials spills also topped the list.
“I’m worried about everything — how the railroad will affect us and our environment,” said Hollygrove resident Alvena McNeal, 74. “What about the cracks in foundation, and the loss of property value? And the loss of green space.”
Gaynell Coudray, 58, who lives with her 90-year-old mother, said she was worried about emergency evacuations.
“There are a lot of elderly residents back there who have health issues and lack transportation, so that would be a problem,” Coudray said. “We’d probably have to go door-to-door like with Katrina and pull everybody out.”
Aside from neighbors, members of the AARP were at Thursday’s meeting, as were a few politicians. Councilwoman Susan Guidry spoke, and a representative from Councilman Jason William’s office approached the microphone to announce that Williams has decided to come out in opposition of rerouting the railroad.
The coalition, which was initially named “We Won’t Be Railroaded,” first began meeting in December. Since then, the Mid-City Neighborhood Organization has become involved, and has appointed coalition member Debra Voelker to be a liaison. The organization has also created a change.org petition, which has gathered 485 supporters so far.
Earl Williams, one of the coalition’s committee members, said he was encouraged by the number of people who had repeatedly gathered to speak out in opposition of the project.
“We’re gonna win this thing,” Williams said. “The reason we’re going to win is because you participants have made your voices known.”