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Archive for Monday, March 23, 2009

Gardner rail hub put on hold

Environmental impact of project debated

March 23, 2009

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— Development of a $750 million freight hub in Gardner is on hold as federal regulators determine the project’s effect on the environment.

BNSF Railway wants to build an intermodal facility that would allow the movement of goods between trucks and trains. Warehouses would be built next door to store the cargo before being shipped out.

Residents and officials are worried that the concentration of trains and idling trucks at what will be one of the largest such shipping hubs in the country could worsen nearby Kansas City’s already declining air quality.

Construction on the hub can’t begin without an environmental permit. A federal study of the project’s environmental effects is expected within a month.

While the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is looking at how the project could affect water, soil, nearby wetlands, noise and traffic, the key concern in air pollution. High levels of diesel exhaust could make it harder for the region to meet stricter federal air-quality standards.

Tougher standards

Kansas City flunked air quality tests for ozone in 2007 and fell further behind when tougher standards were announced last year.

“Anything that adds to the existing pollution levels will not only hurt breathers more but make it that much more difficult to bring (the area) into what’s considered healthful air,” said Frank O’Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, an environmental watchdog group.

“That may mean other businesses will have to pick up even more of the slack.”

Tom Jacobs, director of environmental programs at the Mid-America Regional Council, said reducing ozone by even small amounts is incredibly hard, and Kansas City must cut its level significantly more to meet the new requirements.

But he said that doesn’t mean the Gardner hub will harm Kansas Citians’ health.

“Will this project lead to a kid in Liberty having asthma who probably would not?” Jacobs said. “You could never assign causality to that. You’re adding minute, incremental quantities of chemicals.”

Reduction efforts

Meanwhile, BNSF spokesman Steve Forsberg said the Fort Worth, Tex.-based company was taking steps to reduce pollution.

For example, the railway plans to close its Argentine intermodal hub in Wyandotte County when the Gardner one opens and will use electric cranes, not diesel-powered ones.

Also, the larger Gardner site won’t require trucks and trains to idle for as long, cutting down on emissions, and the nearby warehouses will cut down on travel time.

Development around the hub, including new homes and businesses, is more likely to affect air quality than the project itself, BNSF said.

The company’s own reports admit that overall emissions will be higher the first year of the hub’s operation. But railway consultants expect new government emissions standards and green technology over the next 20 years will cause a threefold drop in emissions.

Gardner city officials are busy defending the job they did to protect the city’s residents as best they could.

The city did pass an ordinance prohibiting trucks and other vehicles from idling more than 10 minutes and insisted that BNSF use the electric cranes, although the rail company said it planned to anyway.

City Councilman John Shepherd said the city chose not to require specific, measurable environmental controls from BNSF.

“Usually Gardner finds themselves very much outclassed when it comes to dealing with a corporation of this magnitude,” Shepherd said. “We don’t have the legal staff or the money to take on an organization like that.”

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