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One Last Battle Cry

On his deathbed earlier this month, where he lay suffering from a lung disease of unknown origin, 50-year-old environmental activist Gary Groesch composed his last public address.

Best known as the executive director of the nonprofit consumer advocacy group Alliance for Affordable Energy, Groesch delivered his brief remarks in absentia, through his allies, as an acceptance speech for an award presented Nov. 9 by the Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN). Groesch died two days later of pulmonary fibrosis.

Groesch, a tireless and stubborn warrior, departed with a battle cry for more recruits for environmental battles to come. "If you want to be a frontline soldier on environmental protection, social justice or environmental racism, come to Louisiana," he wrote. He then praised LEAN for its statewide battles against corporate polluters and government collusion and neglect. "You are a magnificent example of courage under fire," Groesch told his fellow environmentalists. "Never doubt that the tide is turning in our direction."

Groesch is gone now, leaving friends and co-workers to define his considerable legacy and carry on the fight.

Former Mayor Marc Morial, speaking at a memorial service Nov. 17, called Groesch one of our city's "most significant figures of the last half of the century." And Dan Packer, whose promotions as the first African-American president of both Entergy-New Orleans and the local Chamber of Commerce were loudly applauded by Groesch, mourned the loss of a friend and an adversary. "Gary's death is going to be a real loss to the community, and I will feel it personally," Packer said in an interview. "He and I used to have some good talks about things. A lot of the times we were not on the same side, but it was always clear to me that Gary was out to take care of everybody in the community as much as he could."

Born in Springfield, Ill., Groesch graduated from the University of Illinois with a bachelor's degree in geology in 1974. He rejected a scholarship for an advanced degree because of oil company influence over the curricula. Groesch hitchhiked to New Orleans from Morgan City in 1976 and worked as a carpenter. In 1979, alarmed over the nuclear power plant accident at Three Mile Island, Pa., he joined the grassroots environmental group Oyster Shell Alliance.

In 1980, Groesch formed Citizens for Safe Energy to oppose expansions of nuclear power plants. While studying safety factors he found that Entergy (then Middle South Utilities) was planning to saddle ratepayers in New Orleans with high construction costs of the then-little known Grand Gulf nuclear power plant at Port Gibson, Miss. Groesch collaborated with Gambit reporter Ron Ridenhour on a series of investigations that foreshadowed an eventual $144 million refund to local Entergy customers for construction of the plant.

May 3, 1985, may have been Mr. Groesch's finest hour. The electorate, responding to a Groesch-inspired referendum, voted to return regulation of the local utility, then-New Orleans Public Service Inc., to the local City Council. Despite a multi-million dollar campaign by the utility, the "Get NOPSI Back" effort won by a stunning 70-30 percent of the vote. Groesch was named Gambit's New Orleanian of the Year for 1985.

That same year, Groesch formed the Alliance. Along with research director Tom Lowenburg, Groesch and the Alliance entered into a number of David-and-Goliath struggles. David often won. In the early 1990s, Groesch introduced the Least Cost Plan, which helped make 10,000 homes in Orleans Parish more energy-efficient. In 1992, research by Groesch and Lowenburg resulted in the City Council scaling back a proposed 18 percent gas-rate hike to 2 percent. In 1996, Gov. Mike Foster honored Groesch for helping to devise a code to make public buildings more energy-efficient. And on Jan. 20, 2002, the Greater New Orleans African Methodist Episcopal Ministerial Alliance gave Groesch the "Martin Luther King Award" for his efforts to protect low-income ratepayers from skyrocketing natural gas prices.

Karen Wimpelberg, president of the Alliance board of directors and Groesch's lifetime companion, says the group -- which boasts several hundred active members -- aims to continue his work on key projects. Among them:

· Ensure that the City Council implements a 2001 plan to distribute a $6 million public-benefits fund to help the poor to pay their utility bills and to insulate more homes and small businesses. Groesch sought a similar program statewide.

· Persuade Foster and the Legislature to act on the recommendations of a 1999 study that Groesch co-authored on the dangerous effects of global warming on Louisiana's coastline.

· Promote the creation of a publicly funded utility consumer advocate to act on behalf of residential ratepayers. Similar positions exist in most states.

· Urge utilities to place power lines underground to shield the public from the threat and inconvenience of downed lines.

If the tide is indeed turning, Groesch deserves much credit for turning it around. With his last breaths, Groesch called for more "frontline soldiers" to take his place. The best tribute anyone could pay him would be to answer that call.

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