Enviro groups appeal approval of Alaska coal railroad

Three environmental groups on Jan. 20 appealed to the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals a November 2011 decision from the U.S. Surface Transportation Board to approve a new, 35-mile segment planned by the Alaska Railroad Corp. (ARRC).

The appeal by Alaska Survival, the Sierra Club, and the Cook Inletkeeper said the board approved construction and operation of about 35 miles of new rail line connecting Port MacKenzie, in south-central Alaska, to a point between Wasilla, Alaska, and an area north of Willow, Alaska. They said the board did so in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act and the nation’s environmental laws, including the National Environmental Policy Act. Among other things, this line would haul coal to the export market.

“Petitioners respectfully submit that the Court should reverse the Board’s decision and remand the matter for further proceedings,” said the appeal, without laying out exactly what in the board decision is being appealed. “Venue is proper in this Circuit under [U.S. legal code] because the principal office of each Petitioner is located in Alaska or California.”

The proposed rail line would provide freight services between Port MacKenzie and the interior of Alaska and would support the port’s continuing development as an intermodal and bulk material resources export and import facility.

ARRC is a regional rail carrier that provides freight and passenger service over a 470-mile main line to communities from the Gulf of Alaska to the greater Fairbanks area in the interior of the state. The proposed Port MacKenzie Rail Extension would connect the Port MacKenzie District in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough to a point on the existing ARRC main line between Wasilla and just north of Willow. It would be a single-track rail line with a 200-foot-wide right-of-way. The port is the closest deepwater port to the interior of Alaska.

The Port of Anchorage, the nearest other port in the area, is 35 highway/rail miles farther from interior Alaska than Port MacKenzie. According to ARRC, Port MacKenzie’s potential new market includes bulk commodities (such as wood chips, saw logs and coal), iron or steel materials (such as scrap metal), vehicles and heavy equipment, and mobile or modular buildings.

Currently, trucking is the only mode of surface freight transportation available to move bulk materials and other freight to and from the port. Without the proposed line, bulk commodity shippers that already have access to the ARRC network need to transload freight from rail to trucks and then drive 30 miles from the ARRC main line to make final delivery to the port. Port MacKenzie is situated on nearly 9,000 acres of land, has an existing dockside bulk materials loading system and can accommodate deep-draft ocean vessels.

Coal mining came up as an issue during the STB proceeding. Environmental groups claimed that there was no analysis in the board’s environmental impact statement for the project of the reasonably foreseeable cumulative and indirect impacts of additional coal mining and other resource extraction in Alaska and subsequent increases in domestic and international coal burning that would result from the proposed line.

“The Sierra Club notes that all of these activities would serve as significant sources of greenhouse gas emissions,” the board decision said. “The Sierra Club also notes that Alaska possesses half the known coal resources in the United States and that increased mining of this coal would not be inconsequential and should have been analyzed in the EIS.”

ARRC does generally expect the new rail segment to encourage development of new resources, including coal. “However, neither ARRC nor any other party has identified any reasonably foreseeable coal mining projects that would be caused by the construction and operation of this rail line or would result in reasonably foreseeable cumulative impacts,” said the board decision. “Therefore, we find no merit to the claims of the Sierra Club and [a coalition of environmental groups] that the proposed rail line would lead to substantial increases in future coal mining.”

Usibelli Coal Mine Inc., Alaska’s only current coal producer, already ships heavily into the coal export market and there are various ongoing efforts by other companies to develop new coal mines in the state.

About Barry Cassell 20414 Articles
Barry Cassell is Chief Analyst for GenerationHub covering coal and emission controls issues, projects and policy. He has covered the coal and power generation industry for more than 24 years, beginning in November 2011 at GenerationHub and prior to that as editor of SNL Energy’s Coal Report. He was formerly with Coal Outlook for 15 years as the publication’s editor and contributing writer, and prior to that he was editor of Coal & Synfuels Technology and associate editor of The Energy Report. He has a bachelor’s degree from Central Michigan University.