Unease, comfort orbit bridge plan

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More than 20 people testified at the U.S. Coast Guard hearing on the BNSF Railway proposal on Wednesday in Ponderay. (Photo by KEITH KINNAIRD)

PONDERAY — The U.S. Coast Guard heard the tale of two bridges on Wednesday.

One tale holds that another bridge across will safely eliminate a bottleneck that holds up rail traffic, allowing for more efficient mobility of freight and materials and fewer hold-ups at at-grade railroad crossings. The other tale holds that another bridge will heighten the chances of a catastrophic derailment over Lake Pend Oreille, hasten global climate change through coal and crude oil exports and disturb historic mining pollution washed downstream from the Clark Fork River.

A prevalent theme across both public hearings at the Ponderay Events Center on Wednesday was a call for a full environmental impact statement under the National Environmental Policy Act, rather than a less rigorous environmental analysis.

“The EA is woefully insufficient. We definitely need an EIS,” said author and Lake Pend Oreille historian Jane Fritz.

Some called upon BNSF Railway to fund the additional environmental analysis, while others said the EIS should be conducted by an independent entity to ensure an unbiased analysis.

However, some argued during the hearing that an EA is sufficient.

“I am encouraged by its findings,” Scott Holstrom of a Spokane-based laborers’ union, said of the EA.

Holstrom called the new bridge across the lake a critical upgrade that will create construction jobs.

The Coast Guard took the recommendations under advisement. As the lead federal agency under NEPA, the Coast Guard could reach a finding that the project would have no significant impact. It could also require additional analysis under an EIS, Coast Guard officials said during the hearings.

Comfort and unease, meanwhile, continue to orbit the project.

Sandy Compton of Heron, Mont., said he was not heartened by the railroad industry’s response to a 2017 derailment involving 20 cars on Montana Rail Link line along the Clark Fork River in 2017.

“No action was taken for a month … until the coal caught fire,” Compton said during the morning hearing.

Alton Howell, however, said railroad companies are fastidious when it comes to track safety.

“They do an excellent job taking care of those tracks,” said Howell.

Others contended there are insufficiencies with the spill-response plan, a shortfall of spill containment equipment. The EA was also faulted for not doing enough to engage with Native American tribes, overly optimistic impact projections, insufficient accounting for seismic activity and the disturbance of mining waste in the sediment of Lake Pend Oreille.

“I think it has a few holes and some of those holes are big enough to drive a truck through,” Kevin Kittleson said of EA.

Richard Bond was moved offer testimony during the hearing and noted that some of the arguments offered by critics of the bridge were the same one utilized before the U.S. Highway 95 bypass was constructed. Almost none of the gloomy predictions over construction of the Sand Creek Byway came to pass.

“They realized they were wrong,” Bond said.

Keith Kinnaird can be reached by email at kkinnaird@bonnercountydailybee.com and follow him on Twitter @KeithDailyBee.

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