Vulcan rail spur opponents fault federal report

Vulcan rail spur opponents fault federal report(San Antonio, Texas) Federal officials expect to take some heat next week over a draft environmental assessment on a railroad line Vulcan Materials wants to build in Medina County. The line would be used to carry limestone from a quarry the company has proposed in the county. Opponents of the 7-mile rail line near Quihi say poor research and a pro-Vulcan bias yielded flawed findings by the Surface Transportation Board’s environmental analysis section. “It looks like Vulcan wrote the document,” Robert Fitzgerald, president of the Medina County Environmental Action League, said of the 1,000-page report issued Nov. 5. “It’s incredible.” His group hopes to block the quarry’s construction by persuading the federal board to deny the rail permit that Southwest Gulf Railroad, a Vulcan subsidiary, sought in 2003. Vulcan officials call the report complete and unbiased, noting it suggests roughly 50 measures to mitigate problems. “We’re still studying the report, but we think we can handle the mitigation requirements,” Tom Hill, president of Vulcan Materials Southwest Division, said Friday. Vulcan has spent more than $1 million since 1999 on the project, in part to secure rights to 1,750 acres for the quarry and other parcels on the proposed rail line. Federal staffers say complaints and comments about the preliminary report can be filed through Jan. 10, and valid deficiencies can be fixed. Members of the public can weigh in Thursday at the Medina County fair hall. “We’re going to have a brief presentation by our environmental analysis section, followed by an opportunity for people to submit oral comments,” Rini Ghosh, attorney for the federal board, said from her office in Washington, D.C. The preliminary assessment is available at www.stb.dot.gov or in bound volumes at the Hondo library, Castroville library or the main library branch in San Antonio. The study evaluates the environmental effects of the proposed rail line on traffic safety, public health and worker health and safety, water resources, biological resources, air quality, geology and soils (including karst features), land use, environmental justice, noise, vibration, recreation, visual resources, cultural resources and socioeconomics. The Surface Transportation Board is expected to vote on the permit in 2005. The board has not denied a rail permit application since its inception in 1996. Approval from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality also is necessary. Regardless of the federal board’s decision, Hill says the quarry will be built to meet Texas’ growing demand for the high-quality crushed stone – now at 200 million tons a year – primarily used for roads. The company, which operates 16 other quarries in Texas and nearly 200 nationwide, says defeat of the rail line would force it to truck the rock to existing rails at U.S. 90 in Dunlay, where it would be loaded on trains. Forecasts say 850 daily truck loads would be needed to move the 5 million tons of gravel forecast to be mined annually. If the rail line is built, Vulcan projects that two 100-car trains will deliver rock to Dunlay and return to the quarry each day. Fifteen potential north-south rail paths were studied before selection of a preferred route east of Quihi that crosses seven roads and six waterways. Critics say the tracks would worsen local flooding and disrupt archeological sites. They also express concern that vibrations from passing trains would harm Alsatian homes there dating to the 1800s. “I couldn’t imagine a worse place to try to put a railroad, in terms of the cultural heritage,” said Tom Hester, a University of Texas anthropology professor. “It just boggles the mind that with all these open fields and countryside around there, that their preferred route is right thought the middle of this unmatched historic district.” Not everyone is upset by Vulcan’s plan to invest $30 million in the railroad and quarry, which promises as many as 150 new jobs in the rural area. As mayor of Castroville, Bob Hancock has joined the chamber of commerce there in applauding the project. As chairman of the Medina County Historical Commission, he wants Quihi’s historic sites protected from harm. If the quarry is coming regardless of whether the rails are laid, Hancock said: “Certainly the rail spur is a lot safer than running a lot of gravel trucks over our highways.” Only one historic structure is among five private residences within 1,000 feet of the preferred route, according to Vulcan, which already owns about half the land along the route. Several opponents on the path have barred railroads from their land by adding restrictive covenants to their property deeds. To overcome that, Vulcan wants the power of eminent domain that comes with the rail permit to obtain the 80-foot easement needed for the tracks. Most of the rock will be shipped to east Texas through San Antonio, which critics contend will further clog already-congested Union Pacific tracks. Based on an anticipated schedule of three trains a day from the quarry, Union Pacific spokesman John Bromley said the increase in traffic won’t add significantly to the approximately 60 trains a day that already run through the San Antonio area. His estimate conflicts with the two-trains-a-day schedule Vulcan forecasts. Hill blamed the discrepancy on miscommunication at Union Pacific, saying: “UP knows the volumes.” Fitzgerald says Thursday’s meetings may be the community’s last chance to join the anti-Vulcan campaign he has waged for five years from “the war room” in his Quihi home. He led the Sept. 11 ballot effort to make Quihi a city that failed 80-63. He argued that the measure would have given locals more control over land use and greater standing in the rail permit fight. By: Zeke MacCormackSan Antonio Express-News

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