By Cameron Rasmusson
The Sandpoint City Council passed a resolution Wednesday requesting that BNSF Railway be required to draft an environmental impact statement for its proposed new rail bridge across Lake Pend Oreille.
Citing past instances of train derailments and concern over the potential for hazardous materials to leak into Lake Pend Oreille, the city resolution asks the U.S. Coast Guard to require the statement to analyze the “full scope of direct, indirect, and cumulative impacts” associated with the proposed bridge. It was passed unanimously by the Sandpoint City Council with the exception of Council President Shannon Williamson, who recused herself due to her professional statements against the bridge as the director of Lake Pend Oreille Waterkeeper.
In a presentation prior to the vote, Matt Nykiel of the Idaho Conservation League laid out an argument in support of an impact statement. Nykiel said that according to BSNF’s proposal application, the project would be a $100 million investment constructed over three years. A project of that scope would impact the community in innumerable ways, he said, and without a full environmental impact statement, many of those impacts would be unforeseen.
“Let’s get a better understanding of what those impacts might be, and let’s educate the public and create the opportunity for dialogue,” Nykiel said.
The city resolution states that the BNSF proposals are a part of the greater Sandpoint Junction Connector project, which plans for the construction of three new bridges: one across Bridge Street, one across Sand Creek and a mile-long bridge across Lake Pend Oreille.
“I would think an EIS for a project this large would be mandatory rather than optional,” said Councilman Tom Eddy during deliberations.
Given the size of the project, the resolution expresses concern over disruptions to local economic and recreational activity, damages to public health, safety and the environment, increased rail traffic leading to transportation and emergency response delays and an increased likelihood of train derailment.
Supporting its concerns, the resolution points to recent derailments: one in March 2017 derailing 50 empty coal cars and one locomotive, another in May 2017 derailing 25 rail cars and spilling grain and yet another in August 2017 causing 30 rail cars to spill coal along the Clark Fork River near Noxon, Mont. The resolution also cites other derailments outside the area that led to environmental crises, including an Oregon derailment that spilled 47,000 gallons of crude and forced the evacuation of 100 residents.
In addition to requesting the environmental impact statement, the resolution requests that the Surface Transportation Board use its authority to ensure that the cost of carrying hazardous materials doesn’t fall on local communities, other rail users and taxpayers. Finally, it asks that the Federal Railroad Administration share its expertise “on the relationship between rail safety and public/environmental safety with the U.S. Coast Guard,” which would review the bridge proposal.
The Sandpoint Junction Connector proposal remains controversial. While many public officials oppose it along the lines expressed in the resolution, others support it for BNSF’s claims that it will reduce wait times at railway crossings. They also point out that freight coming along railways might otherwise be transported along highways, resulting in other risks and problems.
Regardless of one’s opinion, Nykiel believes an environmental impact statement will help the public be better informed.
“I think in general increasing public involvement is a good thing, and that’s what EIS is all about,” he said.