Login

DM&E expects to clear another hurdle; Senator says railway project tough to block

Rapid City Journal

SIOUX FALLS - Kevin Schieffer, president of Dakota, Minnesota and Eastern Railroad, said the Surface Transportation Board's decision to require another environmental impact statement is a hurdle the railroad expects to clear this year.

But a transportation economist, Frank Wilner, said a full-blown EIS could stretch into 2009. "While the (board) said you can go ahead and construct the line, you can't run any coal trains until we complete an EIS. Any lender looking at that would be concerned," Wilner said.

The STB this week ordered a full EIS before it will let DM&E haul coal over its sister line, the Iowa, Chicago and Eastern. That line gives the DM&E access to Chicago.

Schieffer said he took comfort in a statement from Charles D. Nottingham, STB chairman. Nottingham said the DM&E project "will significantly advance key national transportation and energy-policy priorities. The decision to proceed immediately with an environmental impact statement allows the STB to meet federal environmental law requirements, protects the project from legal attack, and should ensure that the environmental review process is completed before the DM&E's planned commencement of PRB coal train traffic."

Meanwhile, another federal agency, the Federal Railway Administration, has determined that DM&E's project has met the requirements of the federal environmental review process. The release of the agency's final environmental review starts the 90-day time frame for the loan decision.

"This is a very encouraging development with regard to the DM&E's proposed upgrade project through South Dakota," Gov. Mike Rounds said Thursday (February 1) in a news release.

The DM&E wants to add track to the Powder River Basin coal fields in Wyoming and upgrade its existing line in South Dakota and Minnesota. The $6 billion project would involve building about 280 miles of new track and upgrading 600 miles of existing track so trains could haul coal for power plants.

The agency said that if the loan is approved, it will require the Sioux Falls-based railroad to make additional safety improvements at 10 highway-grade rail crossings in South Dakota and Minnesota and require that locomotives used west of Huron meet or exceed federal emission standards to reduce air pollution in national park areas.

The agency considered nearly 2,500 public comments before reaching its conclusion, according to the release.

In a separate statement Wednesday, the Rochester Coalition in Minnesota said the ruling was not a surprise. "We disagree with the FRA's environmental ruling, but it was not unexpected," Chris Gade of the coalition said. "The FRA's reliance on an incomplete and inadequate environmental review casts a cloud of doubt over the ruling."

The federal loan "can and should be stopped," Gade said.

The Mayo Clinic, Olmsted County, Minn., the city of Rochester and the Rochester Chamber of Commerce constitute the Rochester Coalition that is fighting the project and wants DM&E to bypass Rochester.

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON - Senator Norm Coleman said Thursday that it will be tough to block Dakota, Minnesota and Eastern Railroad's planned coal train project in the Senate, but he said he would try if a mitigation plan isn't offered to meet the concerns of Rochester and the Mayo Clinic.

Coleman, R-Minn., made the remarks in a conference call a day after the Federal Railroad Administration determined that DM&E's project has met the requirements of the federal environmental review process, triggering a 90-day period during which the agency must approve or reject a requested $2.3 billion loan for the project.

"It is challenging to stop it in the Senate," Coleman, who has threatened to hold up the project in recent months, said. "The burden is on us as the department moves forward for us to try to stop something. Some of my colleagues who may support this project can make it very, very difficult to allow anything to get passed."

The Rochester Coalition, which includes the city of Rochester and the Mayo Clinic, has objected to the expansion because it would mean more trains running through the city and close to the clinic. The coalition organized Thursday's call, which also included Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Rep. Tim Walz, both D-Minn., as well as local and clinic officials.

Klobuchar had a similar take on prospects for stopping the project in Congress. "I'm also committed to working on this through the Senate, but I share Senator Coleman's concern that that can be problematic," she said.

Coleman said that there are other options besides passing a law to block the project. "In addition to legislation, individual senators can make it very difficult on a department - very difficult," he said. "Nominations for positions can be left unfilled for extended period of time, budget matters can come under extensive review that have no relation to this project."

Asked if he was threatening to use those tools against the Department of Transportation, Coleman responded that he will use all of his powers as a senator to protect Rochester's concerns.

DM&E wants to add track to the Powder River Basin coal fields in Wyoming and upgrade its existing line in South Dakota and Minnesota. The $6 billion project would involve building about 280 miles of new track and upgrading 600 miles of existing track so trains could haul coal for power plants.