Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Environmental group brings second suit against BNSF Kansas hub

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A national environmental group with deep pockets and specialized legal expertise is joining the effort to block a permit for one of the area's biggest development projects, The Kansas City Star reports. The Natural Resources Defense Council filed a lawsuit Feb. 1 to halt the environmental permit issued for a rail yard proposed for southwest Johnson County.


The lawsuit is separate from one brought by Hillsdale Environmental Loss Prevention Inc. and several other plaintiffs. Unlike the earlier lawsuit, BNSF Railway is not named as a defendant.

 

The defense council's entrance into the case is significant because of the hefty resources at its disposal. During 2007-08, the organization raised $108 million, according to its tax returns from that year. As of mid-2008, the group had assets of $186 million.

 

Its decision to join the legal dispute "guarantees there will be some funding at least for the plaintiffs," said John Ragsdale, who has taught environmental law at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

 

Groups like the council have national constituencies with dues paid by thousands of people, enabling the groups to assemble lots of money with small donations, Ragsdale said.

 

"Many of these groups have staffs of attorneys ... that are very, very competent and skilled," Ragsdale said. "They can bring a strong force to bear."

 

BNSF wants to build what's known as an intermodal hub for transferring freight arriving on West Coast trains to trucks for shipment elsewhere. The railroad plans to develop the hub on 492 acres while a private developer builds a nearby distribution and warehouse complex to store some of the incoming freight. Overall, the project promises the creation of 13,000 jobs when fully built in about 20 years.

 

BNSF is seeking $50 million in federal stimulus money to get the project started.

The council claims that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers failed to adequately evaluate the environmental effects of the nearly 500-acre rail hub that would be located about 30 miles south of Kansas City. The lawsuit contends that the rail hub, along with a proposed warehouse complex next door, will generate substantial air pollution for people who live nearby and for the region.

"The thousands of trucks expected to move in and out of that rail yard every day will produce toxic diesel fumes that could pose serious health problems for the surrounding communities, including increased rates of asthma, respiratory disease and cancer," said Melissa Lin Perrella, an attorney for the organization.

In December, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued a permit for BNSF Railway to build the $250 million freight yard, concluding that the project wouldn't have a significant effect on the environment. However, the Natural Resources Defense Council and other critics want the corps to conduct a deeper and more expansive environmental investigation.

"The corps' initial environmental review for the project indicates that air quality impacts have been understudied and unreported," the defense council said in a statement.

The corps couldn't be reached Monday, but BNSF said it was confident the permitting process thoroughly examined the issues.

"We look forward to providing the project's significant economic, environmental and fuel-efficiency benefits to the Kansas City region," spokesman Steve Forsberg said.

 

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