I recently returned from a trip to Gardner, Kansas. Gardner is about 30 miles from Kansas City and home to roughly 17,000 people. Just outside of the town are rolling green hills and rural farmland as far as the eye can see. It's the kind of place where property is measured by the acre instead of by the square foot. It's the kind of place where kids run through sprinklers on hot sticky days as their parents sit with neighbors in lawn chairs sipping ice tea or a cold Budweiser. And it's the kind of place where people buy "American" and talk about their personal connection with the land. But it's also the proposed site for a new BNSF mega railyard, and that's what drew me there.
The Army Corps of Engineers is considering issuing a permit that will give BNSF the green light to construct a 500 acre intermodal facility just outside of Gardner. And there are already plans to build a 2.8 million square foot warehouse and distribution center right next door. This quiet stretch of land and its neighboring 600 acre Mildale Park may soon see 4,000 heavy duty diesel trucks a day and scores of idling locomotives and dirty switch engines. A local high school is ¾-mile downwind and residential subdivisions are just a ½ mile away.
Before the Corps can issue a permit, it must comply with NEPA---the National Environmental Policy Act---and study the environmental effects of issuing the permit, including the operation of the railyard. Consistent with NEPA, the Corps performed an environmental assessment (EA) and released the document last month. Shockingly, however, the Corps concluded that there was no chance that any significant environmental effects would occur from the massive project, and that a more comprehensive "environmental impact statement" (EIS) was unnecessary.
The Corps' conclusion was contrary to everything I knew about railyards, and so I felt compelled to go to Gardner to see the site for myself. I traveled with Andrea Hricko of USC and Angelo Logan of East Yard Communities For Environmental Justice, and together, with other experts, we spoke to the local community about the potential environmental and public health impacts from the project.
Since 2004, the California Air Resources Board has conducted nearly twenty health risk assessments of railyards throughout California. The result? Residents living even miles away from polluting railyards, including those owned and operated by BNSF, face increased cancer risks from the stew of emissions generated at the site. However, the Corps didn't even bother to assess cancer risk in its EA. It avoided the analysis entirely by urging that cancer risk from diesel emissions is scientifically uncertain. The irony in all of this is that the Corps has approved and defended multiple environmental documents issued in California that it helped prepare and that included cancer risk assessments. It's unbelievable how the Corps would assess cancer risk and disclose that information with regards to projects in California, but look the other way for a project in Kansas.
The Corps is accepting comments on their EA until August 16, 2009. NRDC will urge the Corps to perform a full EIS, and take a harder look at the environmental consequences of the proposed project and to disclose those impacts to the public. Our early assessments indicate that the Corps may have underestimated air pollution from the project, including smog-forming NOx and emissions of toxic PM. Such pollution is associated with increase asthma, cancer risk, premature death, premature birth, and with even affecting the IQ of unborn children.
I went to Gardner focused on the air quality impacts of the project but left seeing the project for what it really was---not just a project that would foul the air, but one that would rob the area of an irreplaceable park, potentially contaminate local drinking water, and bring noise, lights, containers, trains and trucks to essentially virgin land. I learned that to build the site, BNSF has to relocate 9,100 feet of stream in addition to wetlands, and that townspeople are concerned that storm water runoff from the facility will pollute local streams that feed into Hillsdale Lake---the sole source of drinking water for four counties and approximately 30,000 families.
I went to Kansas thinking that I'd be seen as an "outsider," but in the end there's not much difference between me and the townspeople of Gardner. We all want the same things---clean air, clean water, open space for our kids to play. And so as I stood on the corner of 191st and Four Corners Road---home to the proposed BNSF site---I was saddened not just by the potential loss of this land for the people of Johnson County, but by the realization that one day, long, long ago, Los Angeles likely looked much the same. Angelinos can only do so much to turn back the hands of time, but for Gardner there's still hope.
Comments requesting that the Corps perform an EIS for the BNSF Gardner Intermodal facility must be RECEIVED by August 16, 2009 and can be sent via email to Joshua.A.Marx@usace.army.mil or to:
Mr. Joshua Marx
US Army Corps of Engineers
Kansas City Regulatory Office
402 Federal Building, 601 East 12th Street
Kansas City, Missouri, 64106-2896
To review coverage about the proposed BNSF Intermodal Facility see: