BNSF’s plans to build a second set of railroad tracks through the La Crosse River marsh has cleared the first regulatory hurdle.
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has granted BNSF a permit to fill 7.2 acres of the marsh and build a bridge over the river.
The project will also require approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is still considering a permit application.
State and federal lawmakers have joined with local environmental activists in calling for a comprehensive study known as an environmental impact state-ment.
But DNR water management specialist Carrie Olson said the department decided against a full EIS because her two-month review of BNSF’s permit application covered most of the same ground.
Citizens Acting for Rail Safety, a La Crosse-based group that opposes the project, vowed to continue fighting for an EIS.
“We will examine every legal remedy,” the group wrote in a statement. “We need a full, adequate environmental impact statement because we need our state’s natural resources protection agency to look at the complete picture of the most relevant, comprehensive information of how this proposed expansion will impact the health and safety of our local residents and the health of our sensitive marsh and Mississippi River ecosystem.”
U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, D-La Crosse, criticized the DNR and Gov. Scott Walker who he said “seem determined to push this through.”
“It’s irresponsible to rush forward like this when so much is at stake,” Kind said in a statement. “The amount of oil being shipped through Wisconsin is skyrocketing, along with the risk of derailments and spills that could endanger our natural resources and local neighborhoods. Considering the train derailment outside of Dubuque, Iowa, last week that resulted in an unknown amount of ethanol spilling into the Mississippi River, it is clear that the need for proper environmental review of this planned track expansion is critical to protecting our wetlands and communities.”
Friends of the La Crosse River Marsh president Chuck Lee said he was disappointed by the decision and how the DNR arrived at it, noting the agencies failure to consider previous incursions on the marsh that have cut it in half since World War II, diminishing its capacity to hold floodwaters.
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“The DNR has the responsibility of protecting the environment, not just from Burlington Northern,” Lee said.
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.
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 railroad has said the upgrade should ease delays at each end of what is the area’s only section of single 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 additional line has drawn complaints that it will mean more trains through La Crosse, increasing noise, traffic and vibrations along the track. Opponents also have raised safety concerns, as the line is known to have an increasing number of trains transporting oil from the Bakken fields in North Dakota and Montana.
Under the DNR permit, work must be completed by Feb. 2018. BNSF will need DNR approval for any alterations of the submitted plans.
BNSF will also be required to contribute $633,600 into a DNR wetland mitigation program. That money will then be available to create 10.56 acres of wetlands in the Black Root basin, a 10-county region of western Wisconsin.
Olson said those credits would likely be put up for bids in the next three years.
More than 150 people attended a January hearing hosted by the DNR, where 48 people spoke out, most expressing concern about local resources and public safety in regards to increased traffic of volatile crude oil on the rails.
The Corps decided against having a public hearing on the BNSF permit.