Activists Appeal State Permit for Lake Railroad Expansion


On July 20, 2018, Wild Idaho Rising Tide (WIRT) filed a notice of appeal of the preliminary and final orders approving Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway’s (BNSF) application for an encroachment permit for its proposed Sandpoint Junction Connector Project.  David Groeschl, acting director of the Idaho Department of Lands (IDL) in Boise, granted the five-year encroachment permit on June 21, 2018.  BNSF plans to construct 2.2 miles of doubled tracks, two temporary, work spans, and three permanent, parallel bridges adjacent to the existing rail route across Lake Pend Oreille, Sand Creek, Bridge Street, and downtown Sandpoint, Idaho.

As aggrieved parties who spoke at two public, administrative hearings held before hearing officer/coordinator Chris Bromley for the Idaho Board of Land Commissioners, on May 23, 2018, in Ponderay and Sandpoint, Idaho, WIRT activists filed the 11-page appeal in the First Judicial District Court of Idaho in Bonner County.  Prompted by the legal notification concluding the final order, the climate activist collective requested rigorous reviews and analyses by the district court “of the entire record, proceedings, findings of fact, conclusions of law, preliminary order, and final order of this application, [hearing] case, and permit,” including approximately 1,100 written comments and dozens of oral testimonies.  WIRT invites other hearing participants harmed by this permit decision to join the appeal, as “plaintiffs, testifiers, witnesses, and amicus partners” calling for “appropriate revision, denial, and/or revocation of the negligent and culpable, BNSF Sandpoint Junction Connector Project application and permit.”

The appeal challenges several errors of the final order, most notably its failures to uphold the state Lake Protection Act and Rules for the Regulation of Beds, Waters, and Airspace over Navigable Lakes.  Both mandate regulators to “give due consideration and weigh…the protection of property, navigation, fish and wildlife habitat, aquatic life, recreation, aesthetic beauty, and water quality” against the economic necessity, justification, or benefit derived from any proposed encroachment on, in, or above navigable lake beds or waters.  Although “public health, interest, safety, and welfare require” this balance, WIRT activists argue that Idaho officials inadequately examined and compared these “lake values” with project outcomes, discussing environmental concerns offered by individuals and agencies in only two of 42 pages of their permit decision.

The plaintiffs question the legality of sidestepping these stricter state regulations, in deference to an antiquated, U.S., railroad land grant law and hundreds of pro-project, BNSF, form letters from out-of-state commenters.  The 1864 act gives railroad companies unusual power to retain exclusive possession and “complete dominion” over their 400-foot-wide, privately owned route “adjacent to and crossing Lake Pend Oreille,” since before 1890 statehood.  IDL director Groeschl asserts that his final order must only “recognize BNSF’s right to utilize the right-of-way for construction of a railroad bridge and associated fill,” thus dismissing his obligations to the environmental and economic wellbeing and public trust of the Idaho Panhandle community, in preference for the railroad pursuit of profit.

In their lawsuit, WIRT activists also cite examples of BNSF application errors and admitted project impacts to an endangered species and other public interests.  Accordingly, they dispute BNSF encroachment permit approval prior to any application modifications or amendments required by IDL, and before the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality (IDEQ) issues, waives, or denies Clean Water Act-mandated, final, water quality certification and associated restrictions on BNSF plans.  The appeal filers ask the Bonner County District Court “to defer to pending, state and federal, public participation processes and agency decisions resulting from environmental reviews, assessments, and/or impact statements and studies of this project that still requires…dredge, fill, and wetland impact approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and bridge permits from the lead, federal agency, the U.S. Coast Guard.” Continue reading