By Shannon Williamson
You’ve probably already heard that Burlington Northern Sante Fe (BNSF) submitted permit applications to build a second rail bridge over Lake Pend Oreille. Correction – it’s actually THREE new bridges – one over the lake, one over Sand Creek and one over Bridge Street leading to City Beach.
When the public notice was published by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), I cracked my knuckles and got down to business. There was a whole lot going on in that notice, but here’s what really jumped out at me. There will be no Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), just an Environmental Assessment (EA), which is like diet EIS. I’m sorry, but NOPE!
There are two federal agencies and one state agency involved in permitting. These include the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG), which is the lead permitting agency, USACE, and Idaho Department of Lands (IDL). For the sake of this article, I’m going to focus mostly on USCG because they are in charge of the environmental analysis under National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
It’s critically important that an EIS is carried out for this project in order to fully evaluate all of the broad reaching implications including impacts to water quality, noise and air pollution, traffic congestion, delayed emergency response and more. We’re still waiting for the USCG to publicly notice this project so that we can officially weigh in on this.
BNSF definitely doesn’t want an EIS because it would trigger a scoping process to solicit public feedback from a wide variety of stakeholders. This would delay when construction could start, and BNSF wants to start this fall. Seems a bit rushed, don’t you think?
It’s going to take more than our request for an EIS rather than an EA. If you’re concerned about this project, please ask your local and state elected officials, board members of the Lakes Commission, and other advocacy groups to not only request a full EIS, but also request that public hearings are held in Sandpoint to gather robust public input. You can also comment directly to USCG during their public comment period.
You may be wondering how USACE and IDL fit into all of this. USACE is charged with granting or denying a permit for discharging dredged or fill material into the waters of the U.S. IDL is charged with granting or denying a permit for encroachments, which are anything permanently fixed to the lakebed. These agencies are soliciting public comments that are specific to their regulatory authority. They are not particularly looking for public comment about the broader implications of the project – that’s USCG’s job.
I am by no means discouraging you from submitting comments to these agencies or attending a public hearing held by one or both of them. Please do comment (by March 28 unless there’s an extension)! We most certainly are. If a public hearing is announced, I encourage you to flood the hosting agency with requests for USCG to participate so that all permitting agencies are represented and your comments pertaining to ALL aspects of the project are taken into the record.
With so much information to share and not enough space, please feel free to contact me for additional information on how to get involved. We will post resources, including talking points for comments, for your use at www.lpow.org as soon as they are available.
Shannon Williamson is executive director of the Lake Pend Oreille Waterkeeper and president of the Sandpoint City Council.