2007 Avalanche News
Glacier National park officials: Howitzer ban in limbo
WEST GLACIER - Glacier National Park officials want to deny a railroad's request to bomb the park's avalanche alleys with howitzers, but that denial is on hold and many blame political interference from Washington, D.C.
The railroad - Burlington Northern Sante Fe - asked park officials for authority to shell Glacier's southern boundary, to protect commercial rails in the U.S. Highway 2 corridor.
The park, after conducting an exhaustive environmental review, concluded howitzers were a bad idea, and ruled the railroad would be better served by building snow sheds, or roofs, over the tracks at key spots.
“We've made requests to Washington, asking why the decision is being delayed,” said Mary Riddle. “So far, we've not had any response to our inquiries.”
Riddle is Glacier Park's environmental protection and compliance specialist, and it's her job to make sure public processes stay on track. When she couldn't get an answer from Washington, she bumped the issue up to the National Park Service's regional office in Denver, “but they haven't received a response either.”
Not a few are of the impression that White House appointees in the Department of Interior are holding up release of the decision under pressure from the railroad.
“It certainly appears that might well be the case,” said Will Hammerquist, who keeps an eye on Glacier Park management for the National Parks Conservation Association. “The railroad has been very clear that they didn't like the answer that resulted from the public process, and so now they intend to interrupt that process. They've been very active in looking for other avenues, political avenues, to make sure they get what they want.”
And what BNSF wants now, after the decision went against the company, is for the whole thing to go away - as if it never happened.
The discussion about park snowslides and BNSF trains began back in January 2004, when an empty freight train stopped because an avalanche had buried the tracks. While waiting for the route to be cleared, that train was hit by another snowslide, which toppled 15 railcars.
Rails were closed for 30 hours, and while no one was injured, BNSF complained of financial losses related to the track closures. The company quickly began lobbying for authority to shell Glacier's hillsides.
Critics of the plan suggested Burlington Northern should expand its antiquated system of snow sheds, which the railroad has not done for most of a century.
Park officials, presented with a shelling proposal by the railroad, initiated the environmental impact statement process in 2005, and began collecting data and public comment.
In October 2006, the draft EIS was released, emphasizing additional snow sheds as the preferred alternative and noting that “historically the railroad constructed snow sheds in this area to protect trains.”
Officials wrote that “explosive use for avalanche hazard reduction would be an unprecedented action in GNP, and the park has many serious concerns.”
Among those were impacts to wilderness values, protected species, visitor safety, winter habitat security and the natural role of avalanches in shaping the landscape.
“After exhaustive study,” said Glacier Superintendent Mick Holm, “we have determined that constructing less than one mile of snow sheds will best preserve park values, while simultaneously providing the best protection for BNSF employees, freight and equipment.”
Railroad executives, however, argued the sheds would cost too much, and in commenting on the draft EIS, insisted shelling was the way to go.
It was, however, a tough time for Burlington Northern to plead financial woes. The company was enjoying an “all-time record” fiscal quarter, by its own account, with earnings up 22 percent and “double-digit revenue in each of the company's four business groups.”
In 2005, BNSF saw revenues of $13 billion and a 73 percent increase in operating income.
Those good times have not slowed. One month ago, the company reported another “all-time record” fiscal quarter, with earnings up another 11 percent and quarterly operating income well over $1 billion, despite high fuel costs.
And regardless of record earnings, park officials noted in their analysis that any expense would be largely offset by the benefits of eliminating future train spills and costly rail closures.
One big reason for BNSF's strong showing is that the railroad is hauling record volumes, some 30,000 container cars per day beneath Glacier National Park. That's also the reason for the sudden interest in avalanches.
For decades, it's been known that avalanches threaten the rails and workers on the tracks in the Highway 2 corridor. But until recently, freight volumes have not been high enough to warrant major investment in avalanche mitigation.
Now, with volume and profits at record levels, the issue has become urgent for the company, spokesman Gus Melonas said in a 2006 interview with the Missoulian.
Across its entire network, BNSF hauls some 32,000 route miles, a system with a quarter-million rail cars on it at any given time. The company moves, every year, enough lumber to build 500,000 homes, enough paper to print 1 billion Sunday newspapers, enough asphalt to lay a single-lane road four times around the equator.
And, as quarterly reports show, the company is paid handsomely for hauling that freight. They've always run through avalanche country, critics said. The difference now is BNSF no longer wants to pay for long-term protection.
The draft EIS, recommending sheds instead of shells, was put to the public for 60 days, and then for 20 more under a comment extension, and BNSF, among many others, submitted their views.
Riddle said analysts considered those comments, incorporated them into a final EIS, and concluded the draft document was right on track - sheds, not shells.
She sent the final paperwork back to Washington, D.C., where National Park Service brass reviewed the decision. Used to be, that was the end of the discussion, and from there the document went straight to publication.
Now, however, a new protocol is in place, bumping the review out of the Park Service and up into the Department of Interior.
“This new process has been going on since the Bush administration started,” said Chris Turk, environmental quality coordinator for the Park Service's regional office in Denver. “Now, a lot of these things go all the way to the secretary of Interior's office.”
There, some get stuck “and we are given no reason why something might be held up,” Turk said. “It just goes into this black hole.”
Meanwhile, other decisions sail through, leaving many to wonder what's happening with the few that are delayed.
The case for political meddling would not be without precedent. Just last week, Interior officials conceded that at least seven decisions made under Julie MacDonald, former deputy assistant secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks, warrant revision due to political interference in scientific decisions.
Rep. Nick Rahall, D-WV, chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, called it “the latest illustration of the depth of incompetence at the highest levels of management within the Interior Department, and the breadth of this administration's penchant for torpedoing science.”
Jeffrey Olson, a spokesman for the Park Service in Washington, D.C., did not have much to say about possible interference on behalf of the railroad's howitzer proposal, saying only that “it's grinding its way through the system.”
As to why a decision that usually takes a month has now been on hold for five months, with no word of when it might emerge, Olson said only “I think it's because of the issue itself. This one attracted additional attention. There were a lot of people interested in it.”
He did not elaborate.
Strangely, the one place you'd expect lots of people to be interested is the one place that now seems wholly disinterested.
The railroad, which put this public process on the track in the first place, now says the matter should be dropped.
David Freeman, regional vice president of operations at BNSF, wrote to the Park Service last Jan. 29 saying BNSF wished to “abandon its proposal and withdraw” the entire EIS process, which by then was nearly complete but with a decision the railroad did not like.
The company said it would begin a whole new process, and promised to submit a revised proposal “over the coming weeks.”
In the subsequent 10 months, though, BNSF has not done so, and with winter coming fast many are wondering how the safety issue will be handled with no formal decision in print.
But Olson and many others believe Burlington Northern cannot simply make the public process go away. It is not, he said, an a la carte process where special interests can pick and choose. Once begun, he said, the legal process follows through, even if the company doesn't like the results.
As for halting midstream, “I've never heard of anything like that happening,” Olson said.
But if that's so, then where is the final EIS?
Olson said he doesn't know. And calls to Interior, by Park Service officials and the media, have gone unanswered.
“It's all very strange,” said Riddle, who has handled her share of environmental reviews for Glacier. “I've never had an EIS take anywhere near this long. No one seems to know what's going on, or why the delay. Believe me, we've been trying, but there's been no response.”
Officials at BNSF, when asked about the matter, and about their contacts regarding the EIS, and about how the company intends to mitigate the danger if shelling is indeed off the table, replied with a single sentence.
“Regarding the EIS process, BNSF has withdrawn its proposal.”
So what now? If the railroad comes to the park asking, as it has in recent years, for a special permit allowing emergency bombing, “at this point we would have to tell the company no,” Riddle said, “unless it was an immediate and life-threatenting situation. It would have to be pretty dire.”
Which means the railroad may have opened the door to a very awkward discussion. The public process revealed, if nothing else, that a serious threat exists along those tracks, a demonstrated need for some sort of action, Hammerquist said.
The Park Service can recommend the sheds, but cannot force the railroad to build them. BNSF officials, in their letters to park brass, say they want the whole process to just go away, but that doesn't rewind the conversation about the danger.
Now that the threat's known, Hammerquist and others wonder what the railroad's liability might be.
“If they are delaying that EIS, or trying to kill it, they still have a serious public safety liability out there,” Hammerquist said. “If they just choose to do nothing, they could be culpable.”
As to what that liability might be, Melonas and BNSF declined comment.
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