CP Rail will proceed with yard expansion

City powerless to regulate project

The city of St. Paul, it would seem, doesn't have much of a say over what happens to its sensitive wildlife area at Pig's Eye Lake, at least not when the railroads are involved.

Canadian Pacific Railway will look to bypass the city's demands and push forward with plans to infill six acres of wetlands along the lake, in order to expand its switching yard, known as Dunn Yard, which sits along the Mississippi River just to the west of Highway 61 near the intersection of Lower Afton Road.

They'll do so without completing an Environmental Impact Statement -- city staff decided in June that CP Rail needed to complete an in-depth study of its plan, an EIS, following a shorter study the company completed in early summer 2014.

The railroad appealed the decision to the U.S. Surface Transportation Board, and in turn the city staff members conceded that they don't have the power to regulate the project.

According a legal document submitted by the city to the Surface Transportation Board, "the City cannot require CP Rail to comply with Minnesota's environmental and wetland review processes or compel it to obtain zoning permits."

In short, the railroad doesn't have to answer to anything but federal laws.

Though disappointed, Betsy Leach, director of the District 1 Community Council, said the outcome is not surprising.

"Honestly, we always knew that CP Rail as a railroad has this sort of sovereign identity to say 'Yeah, we're not going to play this game anymore.'"

Breanne Feigel, spokesperson for CP Rail, said that the railroad completed the city's Environmental Assessment Worksheet voluntarily, "because we're not subject to (local) zoning regulations."

Need for a local voice

City officials and neighborhood residents have complained about the fact that localities lack the ability to address concerns about the railroad's plans.

"We've been eminently frustrated about it," said Ellen Biales, aide to city council president Kathy Lantry. "Cities have limited ability to have railroads play by the same rules that everybody else does. They're just exempt from all our usual rules."

Sara Grewing, the St. Paul city attorney, noted the city is not giving up on the matter, but rather "conceding the reality of federal law."

The outcome "highlights that Congress needs to act, because there should be an opportunity for a local voice at the table here," Grewing said. "There should be an opportunity for us to control our own destiny."

Nearby residents and city staff raised a variety of concerns about CP Rail's proposed project. City staff came to the decision to require an EIS in June, citing a myriad of issues: the potential for significant impact on wetlands and the rare Blanding's turtle, potential stormwater runoff issues, a potential eyesore of a retaining wall along Pig's Eye Lake, ill-effects to a large heron rookery nearby, and the possibility for additional hazardous materials passing through the yard.

The railroad yard is also across the street from a residential neighborhood, and homeowners have long complained about excessive diesel fumes and the sound of screeching brakes, idling engines and rail cars slamming together.

A big picture issue

Leach noted that the issue goes well beyond what District 1 has been dealing with.

"This affects every single community that railroads go through," she said.

Federal laws regulating railroads, largely untouched since the 1970s, need to be updated, she contended.

"The only people that can fix this situation are federal legislators," Leach said. "Nobody has the ability to say 'Wait a second, the community interests take a precedence here over your profit.'"

Lantry, who lives in the Battle Creek neighborhood, said reaching out to federal agencies that regulate the railroads has been frustrating. "You don't have any idea what bureaucracy means until you try to figure out who regulates the railroads."

But she added that a recently announced effort by Gov. Mark Dayton's office to gather feedback about communities' experiences with freight rail looked promising.

A press release from the governor's office focused on urging the federal government to adopt stronger railway safety standards, and in specific, called to improve safety around oil shipments passing through the state via railroads from North Dakota.

"That gives me great hope," Lantry said. "It's been little Ward 7 jumping up and down ... so maybe if we can get the full force and weight of the state, that will help."

Improving efficiency

CP Rail plans to increase the length of the tracks at the yard from 7,000 to 10,000 feet to improve efficiency -- many of the trains coming through the station are longer than 7,000 feet, and so lengthening the tracks, as well as adding a sixth track, would allow trains to pass through the yard more easily.

The company touts the plan as a way to reduce inefficiencies such as fossil fuel burning, and to ease some of the vexing noises caused by rail car switching operations.

Grewing said the city is still waiting on one element of the legal dispute with CP Rail -- the U.S. Surface Transportation Board still has a decision pending about whether the city maintains "policing powers" over the CP Rail land. Grewing said it was unclear what effect, if any, this could have on CP Rail's plans for the area.

In addition, CP Rail is still waiting on the go-ahead from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on their ability to purchase wetland credits to make up for the wetlands they'd infill for the project. They're required to replace any infilled wetlands at a 2 to 1 ratio.

Contact Patrick Larkin at 651-748-7816 or at eastside@lillienews.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ESRPatrickLark.
 

 

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