Citizens Acting for Rail Safety Sue DNR

Matt Stannard

Citizens concerned about the environmental impact of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) Railroad track expansion through the La Crosse River Wetlands want an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). When the La Crosse City Council approved the proposal without an EIS, Citizens turned to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) demanding caution, and specifically an EIS. Instead, the DNR opted to implement an Environmental Equivalent Analysis (EEA), a watered-down impact assessment that is almost sure to rubber-stamp the BNSF proposal.

Citizens Acting for Rail Safety (CARS) refused to take that decision lying down. In May, CARS filed a lawsuit against the DNR, arguing that the agency failed to require an EIS before issuing the permit; the process was not open and fair; and that BNSF applied for an incidental-take permit that was undisclosed in public hearings.

According to CARS co-founder Alan Stankevitz, the lawsuit is the only choice left to ensure the safety of La Crosse and the natural resources in the marsh. “The DNR has blinders on,” he says. “The EEA won’t look at secondary or cumulative impacts.”

This is important because the tentacles of the BNSF project extend beyond the marsh itself and the very immediate impacts that would fall within the scope of the watered-down mandate. Among the issues that concern CARS is the fate of the black tern, an endangered bird breeding in close proximity to the railway’s marsh route.

CARS is also concerned about the sheer amount of oil transported north to south along the Mississippi River, often at speeds exceeding the limits advised by safety experts. “There have been six major fire spills from trains around the country since January, five of them involving crude oil,” notes Stankevitz. “The amount of oil being transported down the Mississippi River is over 500,000 barrels a day. That's the equivalent of an oil pipeline. And pipelines always require Environmental Impact Statements.”

CARS supports Senator Tammy Baldwin’s effort to introduce legislation that would fast track safety rules for the crude oil transport trains. Although proposed new federal Department of Transportation Rules call for making tank cars safer, implementing electronic brakes on all cars on the train, and dropping speed limits to 40 miles an hour, Stankevitz says the rulemaking process will take several years. He also notes the average speed of trains involved in fire-inducing accidents around the country this year has been substantially less than 40 miles an hour. Baldwin’s bill prohibits the use of older model tank cars and would only allow safety-upgraded cars, requiring thermal protection, head shields, pressure relief valves and other safety measures.

Citing the opposing-majority House and Senate in Washington and the influence of big oil on national policies, CARS is not optimistic about Baldwin’s bill. The courts may now be the most feasible route to requiring a meaningful study of the project’s impact.

“I hope it's not going to take another disaster before things change,” says Stankevitz.

Matt Stannard  author

Matt Stannard is a longtime organizer, writer, speaker and advocate for economic justice. Matt has published articles at Occupy, Common Dreams, Nation of Change and other publications. He is Policy Director at Commonomics USA and is on the board of directors of the Public Banking Institute.