Conservation Litigants Say Rail Spur Hurts Salmon

Environmental groups are hoping to stop the Port MacKenzie rail spur in its tracks. Cook Inletkeeper has filed a complaint in federal court to block the Port MacKenzie rail spur. The conservation group was joined in the legal action by the Alaska Chapter of the Sierra Club and Alaska Survival. Bob Shavelson, advocacy director for Cook Inletkeeper, says the suit is against the Federal Surface Transportation Board

“We just feel that the Mat Su Borough and the Alaska Railroad just failed to do their homework in answering basic questions, like how are you going to pay for this project. There’s no demonstrated need. We already have three ports at tidewater that are connected to our railroads in Southcentral Alaska. So this is just another boondoggle that is going to syphon away hundreds of millions of dollars from necessary maintenance and operations from other transportation projects. “

Shavelson says the plaintiffs filed the suit over concerns about the health of Matanuska Valley salmon runs. They says the proposed rail spur from Port MacKenzie to Houston would cross important wild salmon habitat

“Putting a rail spur across this entire area and filling in and culverting important salmon habitat is not going to benefit salmon fishing in the Valley. “

Shavelson says the groups would prefer not to go to court. He says millions of dollars in public funding is likely to go into building the rail spur, while there is no certainty that the project will pay for itself.

Matanuska Susitna Borough spokesperson Patti Sullivan says the legal action is not holding up work on the rail spur.

“The Mat Su Borough, the railroad, the state of Alaska and the arm of the federal government that approves new rail lines in this country disagree with the petitioners. The decision by the STB is based on the highest environmental standards. They spent nearly three years reviewing the potential environmental impacts, and they explained it in 650 pages, and before that there was an exhaustive study.”

Sullivan says Port MacKenzie already has two tenants which have positioned themselves there specifically for rail. (PacArctic and Central Alaska Energy)

Cook Inletkeeper and the other two groups filed a legal challenge to the STB’s decision on the route of the railroad spur with the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in January of this year, asking the court to review the STB’s decision. At that time, the Matanuska Susitna Borough and the Alaska Railroad filed jointly to intervene in the litigation on the side of the STB. Borough mayor Larry DeVilbiss said then that the Borough stands behind the Record of Decision, which authorized the spur route.