JUNEAU — A federal appeals court panel has halted work on a railroad extension project in southcentral Alaska, pending a full hearing on the case.
Monday's decision is a win for conservationists, who argued that they — and the natural environment — would suffer irreparable harm without an emergency stay on construction of the Port MacKenzie rail extension.
"As noted above ... this is a classic environmental emergency," attorneys for the petitioners said in a court filing last month seeking the stay. "The bulldozers have already arrived and project construction is underway or imminently so."
A divided three-judge panel found there is a "serious question" as to whether the U.S. Surface Transportation Board complied with a federal environmental law in determining the purpose and need of the extension. Attorneys for the petitioners — the Sierra Club, Alaska Survival and Cook Inletkeeper — have argued that an environmental review by the board was inadequate and that the board "merely parroted" the purpose and need for the project articulated by the Alaska Railroad Corp.
The dissent, written by 9th Circuit Court Judge Carlos Bea, said the petitioners had failed, in his opinion, to exhaust their request for a stay before the board and had not shown why doing so would have been impracticable. "On this analysis alone, the motion to stay should be denied," Bea said.
Oral arguments in the case were set for next month.
A spokesman for the Surface Transportation Board said the board is aware of the order but has no comment. A spokesman for the state-owned Alaska Railroad referred calls to the Matanuska-Susitna Borough; the project is a joint effort of the railroad and borough.
Borough spokeswoman Patty Sullivan said attorneys were weighing their options, including a potential appeal of the stay. If not for the stay, she said three contracts would be on the street so she said the ruling is disrupting over 200 jobs immediately.
Attorneys for the railroad and Matanuska-Susitna Borough said in a court filing opposing the stay that granting one "would be a serious setback to the entire region," which they said is interested in the new construction jobs the project would cost. It also would cost the railroad millions of dollars, they said.
The project would lie in the borough, which, along with the railroad, is listed as an intervenor in the case, in support of the board. The state of Alaska also opposed the conservationists' motion.
The Surface Transportation Board last November gave final approval to the railroad to build and operate about 35 miles of new rail line. The proposed line would run from Port MacKenzie to near Houston.
The board, in announcing the decision, said the proposed line would provide rail freight services between the port and Alaska's interior and said it also would support the port's development as an export-import facility for intermodal and bulk-material resources.
Last month, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued a permit allowing the railroad to fill in nearly 96 acres of wetlands for the line.
Opponents, in a news release, said the project would open the door for shipping Alaska coal overseas, but they say that would come at the expense of local families, landowners and salmon fisheries.
"We already have three tidewater ports in south-central Alaska and we don't need to waste public money on another," Bob Shavelson of Cook Inletkeeper said in the release.
Sullivan said the port "will be South-central's future industrial center." She said the project will create thousands of jobs and allow for development of more minerals in the region.