EPA: Tanana River rail bridge environmental risk

Posted: Thursday, December 16, 2010

FAIRBANKS - Federal regulators say a proposed Tanana River railroad bridge is an environmental risk and that alternative sites should be considered.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency wrote a letter of objection last week to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is processing a permit application for the project's sponsor, the Alaska Railroad Corp.

The railroad, with funding from the Department of Defense and the state Legislature, wants the proposed 3,300-foot bridge to help the military get year-round access to huge military training grounds south of the river, The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported.

An EPA spokesman in Seattle said the agency is not trying to block the project, but the location of the bridge could be a problem.

"We just want it to be done in the least environmentally damaging manner practicable," said Rick Parkin, a Seattle-based associate director for the EPA's Office of Ecosystems, Tribal and Public Affairs.

The location - the bridge would start near Salcha - emerged as the best option during extended environmental reviews preceding the railroad's permit application.

But Marcia Combes, a state director for the EPA, wrote in the letter that the bridge and a levee could foul salmon and whitefish habitat.

She said it also could compound flooding problems in Salcha - although advocates have said the levee could help solve that problem.

Other options could have less impact, she said.

"EPA believes there may be practical alternatives, such as crossing at Flag Hill or the Little Delta River, that would not substantially constrict the flood zone, would not require construction of a levee, and would have less adverse effect on the aquatic environment," Combes said.

Tom Brooks, a vice president for the railroad, said the long-discussed project has already weathered significant scrutiny and that managers believe the Salcha option is the best spot to build.

"We think we've done what we need to do to mitigate" potential problems, Brooks said, adding the railroad is "doing our best to address" the concerns.

Pat Richardson, a spokeswoman for the corps in Alaska, said the state Departments of Natural Resources and Fish and Game also submitted concerns about the project. So did the National Marine Fisheries Service and the federal Fish and Wildlife Service, she said.

"We have forwarded those comments to the Alaska Railroad, and they are currently preparing responses," Richardson said.

The railroad is updating its cost estimate for the bridge, which would accompany construction of a huge levee on the river's northern bank, Brooks said. Past estimates pegged the combined price tag at roughly $160 million.

Richardson said it will ultimately fall to the corps to either issue permits for the project under both the Clean Water Act and the Rivers and Harbors Act, or reject the railroad's application.



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