The Alaska Railroad Corporation has asked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to reject the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) attempt to stop construction of a bridge over the Tanana River.
The EPA’s objections could up-end the $800 million project, which has been in the works for years. The Surface Transportation Board approved the project a year ago after a four-year environmental review.
The railroad wants the Corps to grant the permits under the Clean Water Act, so work can begin on the Northern Rail Extension (NRE) project to Delta Junction.
The project would extend the rail line from Eielson Air Force Base to Delta Junction in four phases and provide year-round access to military training grounds on the south side of the Tanana River.
“The recent actions by the EPA threaten to delay and possibly eliminate Phase 1 of the NRE, effectively canceling the entire project,” the ARC said in a statement this week.
The NRE project has been under a formal environmental review at the direction of the Surface Transportation Board (STB) since 2005; an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) was published in the fall of 2009.
On Jan. 5, 2010, the STB issued a formal Record of Decision approving the route to Delta Junction.
The decision gave the Alaska Railroad a green light to proceed with filing for permits to begin the design and engineering of Phase 1.
After nearly four years of environmental analysis, the EPA concurred in 2009 with the alternatives considered by STB and the selection of Salcha as the river’s crossing point as described in the Draft EIS document.
Now, the railroad says, “the EPA has suddenly reversed its position in two letters to the Corps of Engineers (November and December 2010) and elected to impede the adjudication of the Corps of Engineers’ permitting process by challenging these fundamental findings from the EIS.”
“To say we are disappointed in the EPA’s recent actions would be an understatement,” said Alaska Railroad Vice President of Engineering and Chief Engineer Tom Brooks. “The EPA concurred with the STB that this should be the preferred route.
“Having the EPA come back at the 11th hour and try to circumvent the environmental process by now objecting to the findings to which they previously agreed puts this project in serious jeopardy.”
Neither EPA not the Corps of Engineers has responded to the railroad’s request.
The railroad said it had learned of the EPA’s objections only after applying for permits required under the Clean Water Act to begin the project.
“One of the EPA’s more egregious claims is the Tanana River should be considered an ‘Aquatic Resource of National Importance’ under Section 404(q) of the Clean Water Act,” the railroad said.
The Alaska Railroad responded that the NEPA process executed by STB “is required to weigh the entire suite of environmental impacts in the approval of the project, rather than allow a single regulatory concern to skew result[s].
“The Alaska Railroad supplemented the Corps of Engineers permit application with further minimization and ‘avoidance of impacts’ through additional and more costly design refinements than the EIS provided,” the railroad said.
“The Alaska Railroad has worked diligently in its outreach efforts to regulatory agencies throughout the process, meeting directly with agency representatives numerous times to assist them in fully understanding the enormous volume of technical information for this complicated project.”
‘Train Has Left the Station’
ARRC Project Manager Brian Lindamood said, “If the EPA has concerns of this magnitude relating to the bridge size, or location, they had ample opportunity to voice those concerns directly to the STB during the EIS process.
“To our knowledge, they either did not, or failed to make a credible argument as is evident in the STB’s Record of Decision,” said Lindamood. “We believe as a function of process, and a matter of law, that train has left the station.”
The NRE project is supported by funds from the Department of Defense and the State of Alaska.
The project has four phases:
• Phase 1 calls for a bridge over the Tanana River near Salcha. That would provide, for the first time, year-round surface access to substantial military training grounds on the far side.
• Phases 2 through 4 would extend the rail line southeast, about 80 miles to Delta Junction.