Could Gardner, Kansas be the Next Los Angeles?

Gardner might have a shot at becoming one of the smoggiest cities in the country if a mega rail yard goes forward as planned.  Today, NRDC joined local and state advocates in challenging a permit the US Army Corps of Engineers issued to Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Company (BNSF) to construct and operate a major rail yard 30 miles southwest of Kansas City.  This rail yard will be huge, as will its environmental impacts for those living near the facility. 

The rail yard will operate twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week and contribute to the construction of a massive logistics park to be located right next to the rail yard.  Some accounts indicate that the logistics park will have warehousing capacity of up to 12 million square feet.  These projects will permanently alter the existing environmental landscape.  Over 1,000 acres of agricultural open space and fields will be paved over and replaced with multiple rail tracks, cranes, buildings, warehouses, roadways, and storage areas for shipping containers and truck chassis. 

By 2025, BNSF will send 110 trains daily through Gardner, and the rail yard and logistics park will generate nearly 33,500 vehicle trips to the area every day.  Many of the vehicles and equipment used to sustain these large industrial facilities will be diesel-powered and emit diesel exhaust, a known carcinogen.

In our lawsuit, we argue that the Army Corps’ issuance of the permit to BNSF was illegal because the Corps failed to comply with bedrock environmental laws before granting the permit.  Specifically, the Corps failed to adequately report the public health impacts of this massive project—leaving those who will work at the facility and live close by uninformed of the health risks associated with the project.  Further, BNSF failed to adopt many of the measures readily available to it to reduce air pollution from the project, such as using trucks and locomotives that meet the most stringent emissions standards, and alternative-fuel cargo handling equipment. 

I blogged about this project last August.  At that time, I was pressuring the Corps to perform a full environmental study of the project before issuing the permit.  Unfortunately, the Corps declined to take our advice

In many ways, the circumstances surrounding this project have gotten worse since I last wrote about it.  The estimates on the number of vehicles that will visit the project have grown, as has the size of the logistics park.  Further, in my last blog, I noted how the Army Corps refused to analyze the cancer risk generated by the diesel emissions from all of the locomotives, trucks and equipment that will sustain project operations.  Since that time, not only has the Corps refused to correct this error, it has relied on memos by BNSF-hired consultants to refute the connection between cancer risk and diesel exhaust exposure.  It's one thing if the Army Corps fails to study a public health impact; it's another thing entirely when the agency refutes that the impact even exists.  Such tactics are reminiscent of the charades adopted by big tobacco companies in the wake of public concern over the health effects of smoking.  That’s nothing to be proud of.

Our objectives in the lawsuit are two-fold: (1) make sure that if the rail yard is built, it is as clean as possible so that health risks are minimized, and (2) ensure that decisionmakers and the public are fully informed of the environmental consequences of the project before they move forward. 

This lawsuit is not about shutting down the project.  It’s about requiring our federal government to disclose the facts so that the public can be educated and informed.  It’s about making sure that those living and working near the facility aren’t unnecessarily exposed to toxic emissions when cleaner locomotives, trucks, and cargo handling equipment are readily available.  Our government owes us at least this much.