Railroad boom hits environmental, 'not in my backyard' snags

As US railroads try to meet demand and reduce reliance on trucks, landowners and environmentalists worry about pollution.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

From his ostrich ranch, Rooster Cogburn looks out over a broad mesa covered with cactuses, pecan groves, and alfalfa. In the distance, the granite summit of Picacho Peak towers over the Sonoran desert.

"It's beautiful. It's tranquil. No one lives out there," he says.

But, the view could be changing.

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Across the interstate from his ranch, the Union Pacific (UP) railroad wants to build a six-mile switching yard, part of an effort to improve its national freight service. And, this month, local officials rezoned some 10,000 acres from development sensitive to heavy industrial. They envision businesses springing up around the new yard.

Burgeoning business is pushing railroads into the middle of sticky environmental disputes. On one side are environmental groups, ranchers, and landowners concerned about potential chemical spills and air pollution. On the other side are rail companies stretched to the limit – barely able to provide communities with goods. Their strategy – with national implications for reducing oil usage – is to carry more of the containers now moved by long haul truckers. But, to do this they need to build more rail yards in places such as Picacho.

Urban areas are also becoming wary about freight traffic moving through their communities. Nine major US cities are considering legislation that would require railroads to reroute hazardous chemicals – a move that would probably require building more trackage in suburban and rural areas. Last week, both the US Department of Transportation and the Department of Homeland Security introduced legislation regarding shipping hazardous materials. And rail security experts anticipate that the Democratic-led Congress will look more closely at the issue.

With large open spaces in shorter supply and business booming, railroads are locked into disputes over land use – even in what used to be the wide-open West.

The strategy of rail companies – with implications for reducing oil usage – is to carry more of the containers moved by long haul truckers. But, to do this they need to build more rail yards.

"We are all an advocate of increased rail transportation in this country because in part it keeps a significant number of trucks off the interstate highway system," says Cecil Steward, dean emeritus at the University of Nebraska College of Architecture in Lincoln and an expert on sustainability. "However, that does not give the railroads carte blanche to screw up the environment in a similar way the highway system screws it up."

The scrutiny comes at a time when railroads across the nation are building new rail yards – with local citizens concerned about pollution and additional truck traffic. That's the case in Gardner, Kan., where Burlington Northern Santa Fe railway is planning a $1 billion train terminal and warehouse center, in Los Angeles where there are proposals by BNSF and UP to build new yards, and in suburban Atlanta where recently local residents unsuccessfully fought the development of a 450-acre Norfolk Southern rail yard.

The growth of the yards is actually part of a change taking place in the rail industry. It is displacing the long-haul truck industry in moving containers. "We move the long haul, then a trucking company does the short haul," says Pat Hiatte, a spokesman for BNSF in Ft. Worth, Texas.

But the railroads then need large yards to either unload or rearrange. Often the rail facilities are combined with warehouses for easy unloading and storage before goods are loaded onto trucks headed to storage or other trains headed to other states. That's the plan in Picacho.

Many residents – including Cogburn and members of a local group called Save the Peak! – are not opposed to the Union Pacific building a switch yard, as long as it's somewhere else. "I'm not against growth," Cogburn says. "But there is so much horrible, miserable land, you don't need to set it down right over there."

"Right over there" is state-owned land currently leased by Herb Kai, who grows cotton, grains, and pecans on it.

Mr. Kai, who also supports a rail yard somewhere else, says "the railroad would have to prove 100 percent that Picacho Peak is the only place this could go."

The Union Pacific, headquartered in Omaha, Neb., agrees that Kai's piece of property is unique, in large part because it is remote. The railroad tried to avoid locations too close to hospitals, schools, residential developments, and water resources.

And a key reason for choosing Picacho: It's flat. Level land means it's easier and safer to move trains around, says Mark Davis, a UP spokesman.

In Casa Grande, about 20 miles north of the peak, the local economic development group sees the proposed rail yard as a way to get new warehousing jobs for companies that would use the railroad to bring products into the region.

"This should be built to bring in hundreds of super-deluxe jobs and provide the transportation infrastructure necessary to enhance and maintain Arizona's economy," says Paul Ringer, interim director of the Casa Grande Valley Economic Development Foundation.

But the proposed rail yard will also sit on top of an aquifer that could be important for the future expansion of nearby Tucson. "We're storing that water for future generations," says Kai. "People are concerned that any pollution will contaminate it."

That's a valid concern, says Fred Millar, an expert on rail security and safety issues.

"Has anyone inquired of the Union Pacific what hazardous cargos they bring or plan to bring into this area?" he asks. "As an informed citizen, we know that anytime rail yards are redeveloped, you have to do toxic cleanup."

Davis says Union Pacific is "well aware" of the aquifer. And, to cut down on noise the railroad plans to install new hydraulic brakes that will eliminate the high-pitched squeal that often emanates from rail yards.

Environmentalists are also concerned about a population of bats that reside in caves in the nearby mountains. According Tim Smith of the state Game and Fish Department in Tucson, there are historical records of a colony of long-nosed bats, a federally endangered species. "As with any wildlife, there would be concerns about loss of habitat and disturbance of the roost site," he says. "You want to minimize any impact that you can."

Davis of Union Pacific says he is not aware of the bats. But "we will definitely look into it."

But, Cogburn's daughter, Dana Barrett, says UP was told about the bats in a hearing. "We can't seem to get anyone interested in protecting these bats," she says.

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