A group of rail safety and environmental advocates is asking a judge to temporarily halt work on a second BNSF track through the La Crosse River marsh until the court decides whether the railroad’s permit is legal.
With help from the nonprofit Midwest Environmental Advocates, La Crosse County Commissioner Maureen Freedland and members of the group Citizens Acting for Rail Safety sued the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources in March, claiming the agency’s environmental review of the project was inadequate.
The group also challenged the DNR’s rule for implementing the Wisconsin Environmental Policy Act.
Judge Scott Horne decided in May that the two-pronged challenge should be argued separately, with briefs on the first part to be filed between now and August.
BNSF contractors began building the controversial second line in April after receiving a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers allowing them to fill 7.28 acres of wetlands. The railroad expects the work — part of a larger project to add a second track along a four-mile stretch of the line through La Crosse — will be completed by September.
In a motion filed Tuesday, the plaintiffs argue that any work that takes place while the court is deciding the issue would cause “irreparable harm” to the parties involved and the general public.
No damage award could mitigate “environmental damage that is difficult to measure in monetary terms,” they argue.
“It would be difficult or impossible to undo ... once you fill in the marsh and construct the track,” said Sarah Williams, staff attorney for MEA.
Assistant Attorney General Anthony Russomanno, who is representing the DNR, said the agency will oppose the stay.
"It is DNR’s position that the permit was properly issued and complies with the law, and that therefore a stay is not warranted," Russomanno wrote.
A BNSF representative declined to comment.
A hearing on the stay request is scheduled for June 22.
The La Crosse project is one of 13 planned upgrades the railroad is making to its route along the Mississippi River between the Twin Cities and the Illinois border. BNSF says the work is necessary to eliminate bottlenecks and move trains more smoothly.
Environmental and public safety activists argue it will allow BNSF to transport even more volatile crude oil from North Dakota through population centers and sensitive environmental areas along the Mississippi River.
Freedland’s petition for judicial review argues the DNR did not take into account the environmental and public safety risks associated with the derailment of a train carrying hazardous materials, the disturbance to neighbors from increased train traffic and the incremental impact of continuing to fill in the marsh, which has been reduced over the years to about half its original size.
The DNR says its staff “followed the law, used good science and common sense” in approving the permit.