A group of concerned citizens is challenging the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ decision to allow BNSF Railroad to build a second set of tracks through the La Crosse River marsh.
With help from the nonprofit Midwest Environmental Advocates, members of the group Citizens Acting for Rail Safety filed a petition for judicial review in La Crosse County Circuit Court asking a judge to block a wetland permit and to require the DNR to complete a more thorough environmental review of the project.
The DNR last month granted BNSF a permit to fill 7.2 acres of the marsh and build a bridge over the river as part of a plans to add about four miles of new tracks through the city of La Crosse between Farnam and Gillette streets.
At the root of their concerns are the growing number of trains hauling highly explosive crude oil from North Dakota, such as the 105-car train that derailed last Thursday near Galena, Ill., causing at least five cars to burst into flames.
That fire continued to burn until Sunday morning, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, which is overseeing the response and monitoring the nearby Galena and Mississippi rivers for potential contamination.
“The marsh project being considered is one of a series of projects intended to facilitate even more traffic flow,” said Ralph Knudson, one of the petitioners. “An Environmental Impact Statement would compel a thorough look at all aspects of construction and operation of rail lines for opportunities to minimize risk and protect the marsh environment and public assets.”
The DNR declined to comment Monday on the petition.
DNR water management specialist Carrie Olson previously said the department decided against a full EIS because her two-month review of BNSF’s permit application covered most of the same ground.
But Sarah Williams, staff attorney for Midwest Environmental Advocates, said that does not comply with the state’s Environmental Policy Act.
The petition says the agency 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.
It also questions the transparency of the review process.
Knudson wondered whether anyone would have known about a Jan. 7 public hearing — attended by more than 150 people — had CARS not publicized it.
While the DNR posted a legal notice of the meeting, the agency did not send out a press release.
“Our strategy here is just to really have our public service agencies — in this case the DNR — be as accountable as possible for what their mission is and to be as open as possible about their process,” he said.
BNSF’s 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 La Crosse upgrade will ease delays at each end of what is the area’s only section of single track. Opponents say it will lead to increased train traffic, a position supported by the railroad’s permit applications.
The marsh project is still awaiting a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is still considering BNSF’s application. State and federal lawmakers have joined the call for a comprehensive study known as an Environmental Impact Statement.
The citizens also petitioned the DNR for an internal review of the permitting process. In each case, the DNR and BNSF will now have an opportunity to respond before any ruling.