Second Rail Bridge on Lake Pend Oreille: More Is Not Better

“Build it and they will come.” This ominous saying suggests that Idahoans need to take a closer look at BNSF’s proposal to install a second rail bridge across Lake Pend Oreille.

A glimpse of its sparkling water, the sound of hundreds of migratory birds splashing and calling, the cool touch of air by the edge of Lake Pend Oreille. These and a hundred other experiences on Lake Pend Oreille have spellbound thousands of people who live here or visited recently. As Idaho’s largest and deepest lake, Lake Pend Oreille is unique, which is why so many feel a strong connection to this place. Unfortunately, a single train derailment could change it forever. Yet, BNSF Railway is moving forward with plans that could increase the odds of a train carrying hazardous substances derailing in North Idaho.

BNSF is securing permits to build a series of bridges, one of which one crosses the entirety of Lake Pend Oreille, that would double a portion of BNSF’s rail line from the city of Sandpoint to Sagle. ICL has a number of concerns regarding BNSF’s proposal, including at least three significant train derailments that occurred in the Idaho Panhandle in 2017 alone. We wonder, “Why add more infrastructure if you can’t maintain what you already have?”

BNSF’s new rail bridge proposal is especially egregious given that BNSF, to our knowledge, has yet to institute any new policy response following the 2017 derailments or take any proactive measures to reduce the risk of future hazardous material derailments.

The benefits of adding another bridge and more rail are dubious as well. BNSF has not provided the public any study or survey showing whether an additional bridge would reduce train congestion or railroad crossing wait times. If anything, North Idaho could see more trains traveling through our communities, bringing all the associated burdens of trains: emergency response delays, noise, coal dust and public safety risks.

Significant Environmental Review Needed

Given the importance of Lake Pend Oreille and the public and environmental safety issues related to transporting substances like oil by rail, you’d think the federal agencies overseeing the permitting process would be looking at BNSF’s proposal with the highest level of environmental review — but they’re not.

The U.S. Coast Guard (as the agency in charge of permitting bridges) is leading the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in conducting an environmental review of BNSF’s proposal. But the Coast Guard has committed to only the bare minimum requirements. An environmental impact statement is the highest level of environmental review for projects significantly affecting the quality of the human environment, but the Coast Guard has not agreed to perform this level of review, despite potential effects to North Idaho of a second rail bridge.

As part of the permitting process, the Coast Guard has also limited the public to only 30 days in which to share comments and concerns. But a project of this complexity and significance warrants far more than 30 days, especially since some of our neighbors aren’t year-round residents.

How You Can Speak Out

Idaho and Lake Pend Oreille deserve better than this treatment. Help us speak up for this spectacular area of our state by submitting a comment to the Coast Guard and Army Corps of Engineers, requesting a full environmental impact statement, a longer comment period, and a robust evaluation of the particular concerns you have about BNSF’s new bridge.

The deadline to comment is March 28, so don’t delay! After receiving all your comments from just the past week, the Coast Guard and Army Corps of Engineers extended the deadline to comment to April 30. Way to go Idaho! But, we still need more comments demanding these agencies conduct an environmental impact statement, so please encourage your friends and neighbors to keep the comments coming.

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