BNSF bridge proposal warrants close scrutiny

By Matt Nykiel
Reader Contributor

“Look before you leap,” is good advice for anyone jumping into a cold lake or a big project. Likewise, the community of Sandpoint should examine options carefully as Burlington Northern-Santa Fe proposes a new bridge over our prized Lake Pend Oreille.

Matt Nykiel.

Folks in Sandpoint and Bonner County do not want to blunder ahead blindfolded. We want a fair and full assessment of what BNSF’s project means for us.

BNSF wants to build another bridge over Lake Pend Oreille. But it’s unclear whether the benefits of adding a new bridge are worth the potential impacts of transporting hazardous substances through our towns and across lakes and rivers.

We are fortunate to live near one of the most beautiful and iconographic lakes in the world. For me, I think about dipping my feet in the cool water on a hot summer day and watching my dog plunge into the lake and paddle away. But the clean, cold waters of Lake Pend Oreille are also critical to our economy and way of life.

One train derailment, like the one in Cocolalla last year, could jeopardize all that. It’s far better to keep our water clean than to clean it up after it’s polluted.

It is only reasonable that our community demand a thorough and unbiased analysis of all the potential impacts building more rail infrastructure could have on public safety and the environmental quality of Lake Pend Oreille.

Here’s the bad news: Not one of the federal permitting agencies has committed to requiring BNSF complete an environmental impact statement, the gold-standard for environmental review. And, BNSF has yet to provide any independent studies or reports proving exactly how adding another bridge across Lake Pend Oreille will benefit our community.

For years, our community has put up with the risk of transporting crude oil and other dangerous substances near homes, businesses and over critical water resources. The public never had an opportunity to weigh this risk because when the early rail line was first installed trains typically hauled people or inert goods like grain, not thousands of gallons of volatile or toxic substances.

Given the realities of today’s train traffic, it is only reasonable that our community is demanding the highest level of scrutiny to decide whether adding more rail infrastructure is safe and whether it’s in our communities’ best interests.

Scrutiny is no doubt warranted given the scope of BNSF’s proposal, which is anticipated to cost well over $100 million and require at least three years of construction, according to BNSF’s project application.

In addition to a new bridge over Lake Pend Oreille, new bridges are proposed to cross Sand Creek and Bridge Street. How will this construction impact recreational or emergency access to Lake Pend Oreille, or traffic through town? How might construction noise affect nearby businesses that rely on tourists interested in our serene lake town?

BNSF has yet to release any study or plans. In fact, BNSF is advocating to expedite the permitting process, rather than complete an environmental impact statement.

Worst of all is the fact that Idaho stands to benefit the least from adding a second bridge. Idaho sees very little of the tax revenue and job growth created by railroads in comparison to the states shipping and receiving the majority of goods traveling through north Idaho. Because of interstate commerce rules, Idaho doesn’t receive any state taxes from BNSF trains traveling through the state, which could be put toward supporting Idaho state track inspectors or our local emergency response.

I encourage BNSF to be a good corporate neighbor and commit to completing a thorough environmental impact statement that will independently analyze and evaluate what Idaho communities stand to gain and lose with a second rail bridge across Lake Pend Oreille. Our elected officials should demand no less.

If you have concerns about BNSF’s proposal, your state officials need to hear them. The first opportunity to voice your concerns is this Friday, April 6. Starting at 12 p.m. at the Beardmore Building in Priest River, the Lakes Commission will be discussing rail safety, emergency response, and BNSF’s second rail bridge over Lake Pend Oreille.

Matt Nykiel is a Conservation Associate with the Idaho Conservation League. His work includes protecting North Idaho’s clean air and clean water.

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