Responding to ‘Highest Level of Environmental Review’ opinion

By Pierre Bordenave
Reader Contributor

I rarely comment on, much less respond to, opinion pieces in the newspapers. However, the opinion written by Shannon Williamson in last weeks Reader regarding the proposed BNSF Railway Bridges in, and south of, Sandpoint presented too many misrepresentations, as well as overt and implied insults, to remain unaddressed. Given that many of these incorrect statements are encouraged to be cut and pasted into opposition letters, I felt it necessary bring some balance to this conversation. For full transparency and disclosure, I have been directly involved in the submittal of the project applications in 2018. However, for this response to the opinion, I represent just myself as a long-term local resident, and I am not representing either BNSF or Jacobs Engineering.  

First, I find little veracity to the new stance by the Waterkeeper that, “We are not for or against the project.” This transparent attempt to appear as a supposed neutral third party is belied by the very clear statements of opposition already in the record. The actual neutral parties are the four federal and six state and local agencies that are reviewing the whole sum of applications, documents and detailed studies that are produced in relation to the project. 

Second, the tortuous logic to present a case against a second bridge convolutes several differing and self-negating statements that in the end just make no sense. For example, to state that BNSF if hiding something because they wouldn’t spend over 100 million dollars if they did not know the future, borders on the absurd, and is NOT a statement borne out by the record. Rail traffic, car and truck traffic, human population and demands for goods and services have increased every decade since the original bridge was built over a hundred years ago. Not recognizing that is burying your head in the sand. The project has clearly and repeatedly defined its need due to that continued increase in transportation demand. To turn the point around, does anyone think that a private company would spend over $100 million  before a proven need exists? Would you buy a minivan because you might have triplets in the future? This is not a case of “build it and (hopefully) they will come.” The case is already made that, “it is needed because they have already shown up,” as is evidenced by the number of trains that sit at sidings waiting their turn to cross the bridge. The same number of trains cross the bridge, but they just idle and wait due to the lack of existing bridge crossing capacity.   

And finally, there is the implication that a full environmental assessment is somehow deficient compared to an Environmental Impact Statement. This is a false premise and comparison, which should be understood by someone who identifies to be somewhat an expert in the National Environmental Policy Act. Making the “sky-is-falling” claim that one versus the other is inadequate, essentially because it has one less letter in its acronym, is presented in breathless hyperbolic terms and is misleading at the very least. Anyone that fully educates themselves on this process and evaluates all of the studies and analysis that have been, and are continuing to be, completed through the review process, can clearly see that the full potential direct, indirect and associated impacts of the project are addressed in a NEPA compliant EA, which includes many other documents, extensive public input and agency coordination that are part of that EA. Defining an EIS as the “highest level of environmental review” while implying the EA is just a cursory review is a purposeful misrepresentation of the facts. The project does not require federal or state tax money; it is on BNSF right of way along an existing rail transportation route that predates Idaho statehood; and it does not require private property acquisition, nor people or infrastructure displacement.  An EIS is not the normal process for evaluating a project under those conditions, regardless of the vociferous banging of drums, clanging of bells and calls to arms.  

Related to that, I feel it necessary to address the implication of a conspiracy to misrepresent the information upon which permits for the project are being reviewed. It is a complete misrepresentation that BNSF and its consultants are getting to write their own ticket for this project. For one thing, it is normal for agencies to place the burden of proof and cost of data development on the applicant seeking permits. Certainly, one would not want or expect the taxpayers to foot that bill. 

The more galling implication is that the people who are working to perform the studies collect the data and produce the documents somehow cannot be trusted to do that merely because they are being paid to do their job. The studies are produced by highly-qualified, long-term, certified and licensed professionals and are developed so the agencies have the information to make sound and correct decisions. No decision is made by the applicant or its consultants. Data are data and the facts are the facts regardless of one’s stance regarding the project. There are no alternative facts or data upon which independent agencies make their decisions. 

To imply that all the biologists, environmental professionals and engineers would jeopardize their entire future, their licenses and certifications and destroy their legacy reputation for a single project by creating false information is both patently absurd and shameful. If that is what is being implied, then the same logic could easily be applied regarding the data collected by the Waterkeeper. Since there are clearly defined stands in opposition to various actions and projects, the question could be asked: would the people involved with the Waterkeeper misrepresent data or analysis to further a point and jeopardize its reputation forever?  Of course not! 

I have lived and worked in Sandpoint for over 35 years. I did not successfully negotiate those 35 years by “selling out” for a short-term gain, and I welcome anyone to inquire about my reputation with any agency, anyone who knows me, and even those with whom I have tangled in the past will admit I deal in the facts, not in innuendo. Many of the people involved in developing the application, data, analysis and studies are local professionals and people who have lived here for decades, have children and grandchildren here, and are equally as concerned about the quality of life and protection of our health and safety as you. So please stop the dismissal of, and implication, that your friends and neighbors are mere pawns. It is an insult to our collective intelligence as a community and a disservice to those who read your articles. 

Pierre Bordenave has lived in North Idaho since 1983.

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