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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La Crosse Court OK’s Limited Environmental Review of Rail Expansion Permit

May 19, 2016

This week, a La Crosse Circuit Court dismissed a citizen challenge against the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and allowed a permit for the  Burlington Northern Santa Fe rail company to fill wetlands and build a bridge in the La Crosse River Marsh to expand rail lines carrying crude oil to stand.

Nine citizen petitioners argued that the DNR’s new rules on conducting studies of environmental impacts of projects like the BNSF rail expansion didn’t comply with state environmental protection law. They asked the court to reverse the DNR’s decision to grant the permit and to require the agency to prepare an environmental analysis that complied with the Wisconsin Environmental Policy Act (WEPA). The courts disagreed that the agency’s analysis of environmental impacts was insufficient according to WEPA, deferred to agency judgement and dismissed the case.

The judge’s decision largely deferred to the agency, yet petitioners remain convinced that the DNR did not adequately review the environmental effects of the BNSF rail expansion. Petitioners believe that filling the sensitive and critical La Crosse River Marsh to expand a rail line through a densely populated city to ship greater volumes of volatile crude oil is a significant action because of its threat to public safety and environmental health. An action with significant potential impacts demands a more thorough environmental review. The DNR’s process to approve filling in wetlands and construct a rail bridge was too narrow to fully consider these threats.

“Though the DNR accepted and reviewed BNSF documentation on the impact of filling in 7.2 acres of wetlands and building a bridge through the marsh, giving lip service to some of the potential impacts does not fulfill WEPA’s mandate to conduct a thorough environmental review,” said MEA Staff Attorney Sarah Geers. “Crude oil derailments are too much of a risk to human life, health and safety, and are too damaging to sensitive environmental resources to remediate. From the start, petitioners – and members of the City of La Crosse – have argued that the serious impacts of this controversial project required the DNR to conduct an independent, detailed investigation to the long-term and secondary impacts of the rail expansion.”

Maureen Freedland, a petitioner in the challenge expressed disappointment with the decision and concerns about the safety of her community in the future. “We want to trust our DNR – as well as our federal government – to protect our environment, and public health and safety. Our community is still left with fewer federal rail safety inspectors, local emergency responders saddled with the stress of training to handle crude oil derailments, even more encroachments of development to a marsh we’ve fought for decades to protect, and a watered-down environmental review law that doesn’t do enough to protect our environment. We will continue to advocate for better federal and state protections of the health and safety of the public and our environment from the significant damage caused by crude oil derailments.”

News about the decision was covered by the La Crosse Tribune.

Visit the BNSF permit challenge action page for more information.

/ tagged: wetlands, mississippi river, crude oil