On April 18, local newspapers reported that the BNSF Railway is moving forward with plans to construct a second railroad bridge across Lake Pend Oreille. Then on May 1, BNSF began work necessary for pile load testing in Sandpoint, near Dog Beach on the the north end of the existing rail bridge. As far as we know, BNSF has the necessary permits for this initial work, but the company has not yet obtained permits to officially begin construction of a second bridge.
Here’s the thing: the short notice that BNSF gave before beginning its testing and its failure to consider public concerns has local residents worried that the company may try to fast-track actual construction of a second bridge without allowing the public to weigh in.
Why Is This Issue Important?
The Idaho Conservation League understands the important service that railroads provide to communities up and down the rail line. In fact, transporting goods like corn, grain and manufactured products generally creates less greenhouse gas emissions than transporting those same goods by truck. But ICL doesn’t believe that transporting coal, oil and other volatile and toxic materials is worth risking public safety and the health of our environment.
The risks associated with transporting volatile and toxic materials by train are sobering. Among the worst risks that rail-side communities like Sandpoint, Bonners Ferry and Rathdrum are exposed to daily is oil train derailment and explosion. In 2013, an oil train derailed in Lac-Mégantic, Canada, killing 47 people, destroying over 30 downtown buildings, and costing the community millions. North Idaho communities are no more protected from this type of risk and others than Lac-Mégantic was; we’ve just had luck on our side.
Just this year, North Idaho was subjected to several near misses in which trains, thankfully carrying grain or corn, spectacularly derailed. Had any of these trains been carrying coal or oil, the results could have been devastating. The most recent accident occurred earlier this month when 25 BNSF train cars derailed on a mild section of rail just south of Sandpoint and adjacent to Interstate 95. Piles of dumped corn still litter the accident site. But the relatively low consequence of this derailment is cold comfort considering what could have happened had the trains been full of oil and derailed in town or over the lake.
A second bridge would mean more coal and oil trains running through our towns and over our water—and more opportunities for train accidents that might not be of low consequence. And BNSF’s recent streak of accidents and the state of rail infrastructure and maintenance are not reassuring.
When asked to reduce or eliminate the transport of these dangerous materials, BNSF’s response has been that federal regulations preclude the company from withholding service for particular goods. But BNSF is not precluded from pausing its current plans for a second railroad bridge until it can spend the time and resources needed to make railroad transportation through North Idaho safe. Given recent railroad accidents, we do not believe that the company is prepared to accommodate more coal and oil train traffic on its rail lines. The company should forgo adding a second bridge until it can assure our communities that a train full of coal, oil or other toxic substance will not derail in our towns or pollute our environment.
Idahoans’ Safety Must Be Ensured
Given the consequences of a derailment or explosion to public health, infrastructure and the environment, the public must be able to weigh in on the BNSF’s proposed second railroad bridge. The best route to securing a process that will allow residents and stakeholders to share their concerns and opinions is for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, one of the permitting authorities for a project like this, to require a section 404 permit under the Clean Water Act. This type of permit would ensure that you and other concerned folks have an opportunity to weigh in on the railroad bridge.
[Earlier, we asked people to take action and request that the Corps require BNSF to obtain a section 404 permit. Thanks to all of you who took action while our form was still available.