On The Lake: BNSF’s permit application to build a second rail bridge over the lake is making my eye twitch

By Shannon Williamson
Reader Columnist

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.

Shannon Williamson.

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.

While we have you ...

... if you appreciate that access to the news, opinion, humor, entertainment and cultural reporting in the Sandpoint Reader is freely available in our print newspaper as well as here on our website, we have a favor to ask. The Reader is locally owned and free of the large corporate, big-money influence that affects so much of the media today. We're supported entirely by our valued advertisers and readers. We're committed to continued free access to our paper and our website here with NO PAYWALL - period. But of course, it does cost money to produce the Reader. If you're a reader who appreciates the value of an independent, local news source, we hope you'll consider a voluntary contribution. You can help support the Reader for as little as $1.

You can contribute at either Paypal or Patreon.

Contribute at Patreon Contribute at Paypal

You may also like...

Close [x]

Want to support independent local journalism?

The Sandpoint Reader is our town's local, independent weekly newspaper. "Independent" means that the Reader is locally owned, in a partnership between Publisher Ben Olson and Keokee Co. Publishing, the media company owned by Chris Bessler that also publishes Sandpoint Magazine and Sandpoint Online. Sandpoint Reader LLC is a completely independent business unit; no big newspaper group or corporate conglomerate or billionaire owner dictates our editorial policy. And we want the news, opinion and lifestyle stories we report to be freely available to all interested readers - so unlike many other newspapers and media websites, we have NO PAYWALL on our website. The Reader relies wholly on the support of our valued advertisers, as well as readers who voluntarily contribute. Want to ensure that local, independent journalism survives in our town? You can help support the Reader for as little as $1.