An informal neighborhood group has announced that they have begun working toward petitioning the federal Surface Transportation Board (STB) for a declaratory order regarding a proposed frac sand loading facility in a residential area of Prairie du Chien.
The Wisconsin and Southern Railroad (WSOR) has proposed building a 6,000-square-foot, 94-foot-high, $1 million frac sand load-out facility and adding a seven-track switchyard to the existing load-out site located along the Highway 18 Bypass (700 to 900 block of South Main Street). They requested rezoning of the site from R-2 medium density residential to I-2 industrial/manufacturing.
The City of Prairie du Chien denied the rezoning request, though federal preemption laws granted to railroads in the 1860s to facilitate the development of transcontinental transportation leave a loophole that would allow WSOR to proceed despite the city’s wishes unless the STB where to rule in favor of the city.
The STB is responsible for mediation and judgment in transportation disputes and for regulating transportation industries. As such, the agency has jurisdiction over railroad line construction.
“At this point, though the city’s council enforced its zoning ordinances, the railroad, apparently on behalf of Pattison Sand Company, is threatening to go ahead and do what they want anyway,” said Jim Walz of the Prairie du Chien Neighborhood Group. “We have asked the city to compel Wisconsin and Southern to petition the Surface Transportation Board to find out whether their project for Pattison Sand Company of Clayton, Iowa has preemptive rights. That hasn’t happened so we are looking at filing a petition with the Surface Transportation Board on our own.”
“This is a David and Goliath story for sure because the businessmen who benefit most from this facility have deep pockets,” Walz continued. “We certainly wouldn’t expect that those employed by the city would do anything other than what the city directs them to do.”
Despite Walz misgivings, Prairie du Chien City Administrator Aaron Kramer said he did not consider a formal petition off the table.
“We we’re going to ask for an advisory order from the STB, but were informed that that was not a possibility,” Kramer explained. “We haven’t moved forward on a formal petition based on the belief that we would not be successful.”
The Prairie du Chien Common Council was informed by letter that the STB would not issue an informal decision in April 2013. Kramer recommended to the council in their May 7, 2013 tabling further action at that time, noting that he was still meeting with Pattison Sand Company on possible site to relocate the sand unloading operation.
Case law is abundant regarding declaratory orders, and they have not been in favor of state or municipal rights, Kramer noted. In the face of an adverse case law history and the cost of filing a petition - thousands to tens of thousand of dollars, according to Kramer - the city council had thus far opted not to proceed with a petition.
“I would not rule out that the council would look at it (petitioning) again,” Kramer said.
In the meantime, the Prairie du Chien Neighborhood Group is looking to become more organized and to begin fundraising in an effort to move the process forward.
“We’ve tried to get the city to do this,’ said resident Katie Garrity, who has been fighting to block frac sand loading in the neighborhood for three years. “This is a neighborhood made up mostly of retired and elderly people and very young families.”
Garrity said the existing loading site has already had a deleterious impact on the neighborhood, citing a pervasive super fine silica dust that gets into homes near the site and increased noise and rail traffic degrading quality of life for residents of the neighborhood.
Crystalline silica dust, a byproduct of frac sand handling, is classified as a human lung carcinogen. Breathing the dust has been linked to the development of disabling and sometimes fatal lung diseases, including silicosis and lung cancer.
The ad hoc group has worked with the Crawford Stewardship Project to educate and mobilize the community, Garrity explained. She hopes to continue that relationship as the neighborhood group begins to raise funds.
Those who would like more information about the neighborhood group or would like to assist the group’s efforts are welcome to contact Garrity at 608-306-2571 or firstname.lastname@example.org.