Midwest Environmental Advocates is a nonprofit environmental law center that works for healthy water, air, land and government for this generation and the next. We believe that every citizen has the potential to make a difference.

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Crude oil rail line through La Crosse wetlands approved by DNR

Feb 09, 2015

Today, Midwest Environmental Advocates expressed concern that the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources approved a permit to Burlington Northern Santa Fe to fill a wetland in the La Crosse River Marsh in order to expand a rail line carrying volatile crude oil through the marsh and the urban area near the Upper Mississippi River.

The news of the approval of the state-issued permit to expand the rail line through the wetlands came the day after citizens in La Crosse responded to Thursday morning's derailment of train cars in Iowa carrying ethanol which caught fire and spilled into the Mississippi River. No one was hurt in the incident, but the environmental impact of the chemical spill is yet unmeasured. News reports from WXOW-TV ABC 19 in La Crosse note that "the La Crosse Fire Department had planned to conduct emergency training with BNSF railroad Friday in La Crosse. That training was postponed because BNSF personnel are in Iowa helping (Canadian Pacific) with the clean up there."

Friday’s permit approval is another example of how the process for approving controversial and potentially catastrophic projects, such as the expansion of a rail line for trains carrying crude oil through Wisconsin, did not allow meaningful public input. Despite challenging winter weather and complex, technical information in BNSF’s wetlands fill application, over 200* citizens attended a DNR public comment hearing and over 80 written comments from knowledgeable, diligent citizens with great concerns about the project were submitted.

But ultimately they were commenting on a moving target: the permit application and project plans continued to change throughout the legally required public comment period. Citizens are entitled to a meaningful opportunity to review complete plans for such potentially destructive projects such as this proposed rail expansion. They have the right to comment and share their concerns with the state natural resources agency that ultimately must decide whether the DNR will permit such projects.

“It is disappointing to see the continuing decline of citizens’ rights to participate in decisions that impact their lives and which their own government has limited resources and autonomy to make determinations based in sound science and the law,” said Executive Director Kim Wright.

This permit approval is also yet another example of an agency action that was to provide an “equivalent analysis” of environmental impacts as required under the Wisconsin Environmental Policy Act, but which actually fell far short. The law requires a comprehensive environmental analysis of all agency actions.

Citizens have raised numerous concerns about secondary and indirect effects of the proposed rail expansion that the DNR should have considered under a WEPA analysis. Secondary and indirect effects include concerns ranging from the potential for flooding, hazardous spills or train derailments, increased rail noise and vibrations and impacts to local residents’ quality of life, tax revenues, recreation, property values, impacts to water and air quality, endangered and threatened species and more. However, the DNR said the agency was not required to consider these concerns as a part of the wetland’s fill permitting process.

State and federal legislators from Wisconsin also asked for the state to conduct an environmental impact statement.

“Considering the WEPA requirements, along with the scope of this overall project, the high level of citizen concern, and numerous requests for such a comprehensive environmental analysis by state and federal legislators, the DNR should have prepared an EIS before issuing this permit,” said staff attorney Sarah Williams.

“As DNR resources and staff capacity continue to be targeted for depletion by the Governor and our state elected officials, citizens increasingly have taken on the costs and burdens of environmental protection when their own government can’t or won’t,” said Wright. “It’s enough of a burden for people to take on the review of complex technical information on top of their daily lives. It’s unacceptable to ask them to comment on a moving target by beginning the public notice period before the information critical to the decision being made is even in the file.”

The state's railroad commissioner has also recently approved changes to railroad crossings in the city of La Crosse to accomodate the rail expansion.


*Correction: we've seen different reports on the number of attendees at the event. The attendance is estimated from 175 to over 200. Either way, the hearing had a strong turnout despite being held during the afternoon on a workday and on a day with extremely low winter temperatures.

/ tagged: government, water, mississippi river, crude oil, wetlands