On The Lake: A response to Mr. Bordenave

By Steve Holt
Reader Contributor

As the Lake Pend Oreille Waterkeeper, we are unapologetic in our call for a thorough and independent Environmental Impact Statement for the proposed BNSF Sandpoint Junction Connector project. Contrary to Mr. Bordenave’s assertion in his recent opinion, our Board of Directors made a conscious decision to remain neutral on the proposed project as a whole at this point in time. We think it’s premature to decide otherwise for a project of this magnitude before all the facts are on the table. The best way to fully understand all the potential risks and benefits of the proposed project is through an EIS. Our sole mission is to protect the water quality of a national treasure, Lake Pend Oreille. Strongly advocating for an EIS for the proposed project is the least we can do. As a consultant to one of the largest infrastructure projects in our region, I’m disappointed that as someone who touts his environmental reputation, Mr. Bordenave wouldn’t want a review of the highest level of consideration.

As for an EIS only being more thorough than an Environmental Assessment due to the number of letters in its acronym, I’m practically speechless. We have educated ourselves on the NEPA process, and there is a significant difference between and EA and an EIS. Mr. Bordenave knows it. You don’t have to be “somewhat of an expert” on NEPA to know that an EIS is necessitated when a project will have significant impacts on the human and natural environment. A project that will last anywhere from three to five years in the very heart of Sandpoint as three new bridges are built — one over the lake, one over Sand Creek and one over Bridge Street to City Beach — will undoubtedly have significant impacts, most which have been ill addressed or outright ignored in the EA.

If there isn’t a difference between an EA and as EIS, then why such a fuss on behalf of BNSF? If BNSF is as much of a community partner as its full-page ads try to imply, why not just give much of the community what it wants, which is an EIS?  Because an EIS is a much more thorough review than an EA, which identifies real risks established with real data and mitigation measures that could have negative consequences for BNSF, including cost and time. I sense that this is what the fuss is all about.

I would like to thank Mr. Bordenave for clearing up one of the great inconsistencies inherent to the EA. Specifically, this statement was extremely helpful: “The project has clearly and repeatedly defined its need due to that continued increase in transportation demand.” Please forgive my former confusion based on statements to the contrary peppered throughout the EA. For example, under Spill Risk the EA states,”…the Project would not increase the amount of freight moved or rail miles traveled.” It then goes on to determine that the risk of spills would not increase because the project would not contribute to an increase in rail traffic. 

It’s clear that when the rationale for the project needs defending, then transportation increases necessitate it. When risks are assessed, then there is no way to know how train volumes will change because traffic is market-driven. Given this ever-flawed rationale, it’s easy to conclude no additional risk. Mr. Bordenave references his co-author’s efforts to collect data and produce “documents,” yet the actual existence of data to back up the EA’s assertions are glaringly absent. Including numerical projections of future rail volumes which are essential when evaluating impacts to spill risk, traffic congestion, emergency response, the local economy (which wasn’t considered at all) and more.

The proposed project has the potential to change the very fabric of our community and place Lake Pend Oreille in harm’s way from the transport of hazardous materials alongside over 30 miles of shoreline and over the lake itself. We feel it’s the Coast Guard’s duty to require it under law. So yes, this project, at the very least, deserves the highest level of environmental review, and no, the sky is not falling.

Steve Holt is the president of the Lake Pend Oreille Waterkeeper board.

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