Critics rail against expansion project

 

SOUTH DAKOTA

Nearly three years ago, Dakota, Minnesota and Eastern Railroad (DM&E), based in Brookings, S.D., proposed the largest railroad expansion plan in a century. The $1.4 billion plan would upgrade 600 miles of existing track in Minnesota and South Dakota, and construct almost 300 miles of new track out of Wyoming into South Dakota. The new rail artery would carry coal east from the heart of the Powder River Basin in northeast Wyoming to coal-burning Midwest power plants.

Construction would run through the Cheyenne River Valley and the Thunder Gap National Grassland in Wyoming, as well as the Buffalo Gap National Grassland in South Dakota. Sam Clauson of the South Dakota chapter of the Sierra Club says the project would "forever change some of the most pristine areas in this part of the country." Native Americans on the Pine Ridge Reservation in western South Dakota and ranchers in Wyoming voice similar environmental concerns.

"The tracks will hinder cattle and wildlife movement across our land," says Nancy Darnell, who ranches south of Newcastle, Wyo. "We're concerned with noise, air and light pollution, spills and fire danger." Her family has helped to organize the Mid-States Coalition, a grassroots opposition group.

DM&E head Kevin Schieffer responds, "For anybody that understands this business, there is no question that we'll be able to move more coal, agricultural and other products more efficiently than we do today." But critics say that DM&E is the only party that stands to profit from the expansion, and point out that there are already two carriers serving the Powder River Basin.

The federal Surface Transportation Board, which must approve the project, released a draft environmental impact statement in late September. Because of public concern with the complexity and length of the report - over 2000 pages - the comment period was recently extended for 60 days, until March 6. The draft EIS is available on the Web at www.stb.dot.gov/eis/dme/dme_deis.htm.

Copyright 2001 HCN and Joseph Kelty Bump