BNSF Railway has been given a green light to build a controversial second track through the La Crosse River marsh.
Despite requests from environmentalists as well as state and federal lawmakers, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has issued BNSF a permit to fill 7.28 acres of wetlands and about 0.1 acres of the river without conducting a comprehensive environmental review.
Contractors began work as soon as the permit was issued April 14, said BNSF spokeswoman Amy McBeth.
“It wasn’t a total surprise, although it was a disappointment,” said Ralph Knudson, spokesman for Citizens Acting for Rail Safety, which has challenged the project in court.
The marsh work is part of a BNSF project already underway that will add about four miles of new tracks through the city of La Crosse between Farnam and Gillette streets. The entire project is expected to be complete by fall.
The railroad has said the upgrade should ease delays at each end of what is the area’s only section of singe track. Because of the location of BNSF’s North Side rail yard and its crossing of the Canadian Pacific line and the constraints of the Mississippi River and bluffs, BNSF says finding an alternative route is unrealistic.
The 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.
Opposition to the project goes beyond immediate impact on the marsh.
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.
CARS complained the Corps of Engineers failed to consider the cumulative impact to both the marsh and the Upper Mississippi River basin.
“We will also continue to work at both the state and federal levels to make safe the quickly increasing numbers of dangerous trains that pass through our community so that we minimize risk and protect the marsh environment and public assets.”
The additional line has also drawn complaints that it will mean more trains through La Crosse, increasing noise, traffic and vibrations along the track.
Citing both environmental and public safety concerns, U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, along with Rep. Ron Kind of La Crosse and Rep. Tim Walz of Minnesota all asked the Corps of Engineers to conduct an EIS on the project.
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“The effects of BNSF’s expansion project have implications for the citizens and environment of Minnesota’s First Congressional District,” Walz wrote in his letter to the Corps. “Given the severity of recent freight train derailments in Canada and throughout the U.S. — thereby introducing materials like crude oil into the natural environment.”
In its environmental worksheet the Corps of Engineers dismissed calls for an EIS, saying “the project considered in this document is not a federal project and is not expected to have a significant impact on the Mississippi River.”
The Corps, which did not hold a public hearing on the permit request, announced in a letter dated April 23 that it issued a wetland permit more than 10 days earlier.
Senior Project Manager David Studenski said there was no public notice of the permit, but those who commented or requested notification were sent a letter. Spokespeople for Kind and Baldwin said their offices received the letter Monday.
Baldwin issued a statement expressing disappointment in the decision to issue the permit without a full environmental review.
“The consequences of increased traffic and the threat to the environment from an oil train spill should have received the scrutiny provided by an Environmental Impact Study.”
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources granted BNSF a wetland permit in February, also without a full Environmental Impact Statement.
The DNR permit says BNSF is responsible for mitigation and restoration of the La Crosse River and marsh in the event of a derailment or spill. It does not specify a penalty if the railroad fails to meet that obligation.
Under the DNR permit, work must be completed by February 2018 and is prohibited between mid-May and the end of July, the nesting period for the endangered black tern, although BNSF has applied for a permit to continue work during that period.
CARS, with the help of Midwest Environmental Advocates, has challenged the DNR permit. A hearing is scheduled next week before La Crosse County Circuit Judge Scott Horne.
Staff attorney Sarah Williams said that if Horne rules in their favor, CARS will request he impose a stay that would temporarily halt construction.
“It wasn’t a total surprise, although it was a disappointment.” Ralph Knudson, spokesman for Citizens Acting for Rail Safety