Organizing Power Helps Community Defeat Controversial Propane Terminal

Mark Powell of Roanoke's Southeast Action Forum leads an educational meeting on the proposed propane terminal in his neighborhood.
© Valerie Garner, Roanoke Free Press

I hadn't seen my high school friend Mark Powell in years, but was pleased to hear from him recently to say that he had taken on and won a grassroots environmental battle in Roanoke, Virginia. I knew he was doing inspiring work with the Roanoke Community Garden Association but this was the first time he has done local advocacy in coalition with Sierra Club.

Mark is the president of his neighborhood association, the Southeast Action Forum, and this summer their community organizing led to Inergy withdrawing its plans to build a huge propane terminal just down the street.

"The problem was that the planned location is next to a residential neighborhood -- ours -- as well as a river, a greenway that the city has spent serious money investing in over the last ten years, and several schools," Mark says. "Our neighborhood was very concerned about the proposal."

The company planned to "install three 60,000-gallon tanks for storing propane and two 90,000-gallon tanks for butane" on the 32-acre-site, which required them to get the property rezoned for heavy industrial use.

"They wanted to bring propane in by rail, offload it into massive tanks, and then distribute it with trucks throughout the region," says Mark.

As soon as the The Southeast Action Forum's members heard about the plan, they got to work. A group of 15 people from the neighborhood and from around Roanoke studied the issue and then held an informational meeting for everyone else.

Mark says his community was worried about the possibility of a cataclysmic event in such an urban area (a massive propane explosion happened in Florida while this battle in Virginia was underway), as well as the significant pollution from having so many trucks in the community. A local reporter wrote about a neighborhood meeting where there was a unanimous vote to oppose the project:

Laura Padgett, who lives about a block and half from the edge of the land where Inergy Services LLC wants to build the tank farm and terminal, said she was worried about safety.

"Not only would we have tanks sitting there, we'd have trucks going there and tank cars going in and out," she said. "It's a big impact on the neighborhood."

"It's a hop, skip and a jump to the school," said Jay McCanless, referring to Morningside Elementary School.

The neighborhood group got the word out through social media as well and quickly gathered more than 500 signatures opposing the project.

"I was also impressed at how many people supported us, even if this wasn't happening in their backyard," Mark says. "People were showing solidarity with a neighborhood across town from them."

The Southeast Action Forum met with city officials and with executives from Inergy, and worked closely with other community groups as well, like the Sierra Club. A little more than a month after Inergy proposed the plan and applied for the rezoning permit, its executives announced they were withdrawing the plan.

"After meeting with us and seeing the opposition, I think the company realized that this just wasn't going to go through politically," says Mark.

For others who are facing similar obstacles in their communities, Mark has some advice for a successful grassroots campaign:

"Leave your emotions at the door. Get the facts and do the research you need in order to make a relevant case to those who make the decisions."

Organizing Power Helps Community Defeat Controversial Propane Terminal
How one community banded together to protect their neighborhood and the environment.

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