By Matt Nykiel
The results are in — more than 2,660 people submitted comments to the U.S. Coast Guard overwhelmingly in support of an Environmental Impact Statement to more closely analyze BNSF Railway’s second rail bridge over Lake Pend Oreille. After two 30-day public comment periods and two public hearings, nearly 2,700 people want to hear more about the proposal and how it could impact our public safety and drinking water, among many other precious local resources.
Despite BNSF’s election-style media blitz, about 1,000 fewer people submitted comments supporting the railway’s second bridge as is. The fact is Lake Pend Oreille, the environment and the local economy the lake supports are simply too precious and vulnerable to risk from a proposal that involves the transportation of crude oil, coal and other hazardous substances over open water and through public spaces.
And, it’s no wonder people care so deeply about our North Idaho gem — excitement is in the Sandpoint air as the days heat up and folks are beginning to clean off their boats and break out their swimsuits. Waterfowl are returning from southern excursions and bald eagle and osprey are busy snapping up fish. Restaurants and other local businesses are restocking their inventories and sweeping up outdoor patios in anticipation of the families and visitors our community will host all summer long.
For the past year, our community has overwhelmingly and consistently requested that BNSF provide an EIS to more completely disclose the anticipated impacts of its second bridge proposal. Considering BNSF’s resistance to this reasonable request, you might think the sky is falling and that adding a second bridge cannot wait a second longer.
Remember, plans for BNSF’s second rail bridge first surfaced in 2014. Had BNSF begun the EIS process five years ago, it may well have been able to alleviate the public’s concerns and begun construction by now. But, that’s not the track BNSF chose, and the community that stands to bear all the impacts of transporting hazardous materials by rail should not be blamed or ridiculed for respectfully requesting patience and more information.
Lake Pend Oreille and clean water are the lifeblood of our community, and it would be a tragedy if a train were to derail and tarnish our water with crude oil or other toxics – a tragedy we might never fully recover from. Unfortunately, these aren’t scare tactics, as some would have us believe. North Idaho has seen its fair share of train derailments already (at least four trains significantly derailed in the spring of 2017 alone), and our sister communities, like Mosier, Ore., and Lac-Mégantic, Québec, have sadly experienced the damaging and even deadly results of oil derailments.
Sandpoint and its neighboring rail line communities can avoid being the next Mosier or Lac-Mégantic, and we deserve to be informed of the risks associated with another rail bridge. An EIS will help our community better understand how to keep our families and our water safe. The decision to move forward with an EIS now rests with the Coast Guard.
We encourage the Coast Guard to listen to an overwhelming majority of those who commented because transparency in environmental decision-making is critical to those who stand to be affected.
Matt Nykiel protects clean water in North Idaho on behalf of the Idaho Conservation League.
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