Opponents Say DM&E Battle Not Over

BROOKINGS, S.D. -- Opponents of a proposed Dakota, Minnesota & Eastern Railroad line through Brookings say they will continue to fight the project, despite its approval Wednesday by the Surface Transportation Board, according to the Argus Leader.

"It's a long, long way from approval of the project to the beginning of the building of a railroad," said Dwight Adams, a spokesman for the Coal Train Issues Committee, a group opposed to the expansion.

The Surface Transportation Board approved a $1.4 billion plan to lay a new rail line linking Midwest and eastern markets to Wyoming coal beds. The route approved by the STB does not include bypasses for cities such as Brookings, Pierre and Rochester, Minn., something opponents in those communities had requested.

In Brookings, the debate over the expansion has included two separate proposals for bypasses, one with an offer from Gov. Bill Janklow to use state highway rights of way for the route.

The company has always opposed the changes in the route, saying they are too expensive and would kill the project.

And in November, Brookings voters defeated a resolution in support of the City Council's efforts to secure a bypass.

The STB said Wednesday that both bypass plans would have a greater environmental effect than rehabilitating the existing line through town.

Wednesday's approval from the STB was a step that needed to happen before groups can move forward with legal action to stop it, Adams said.

"We don't have deep enough pockets in Brookings to go in and fight this, but the ranchers out west do and the doctors at Mayo do, and they are going to," he said.

Mayor Virgil Herriot said he hopes to negotiate with the railroad to improve safety along the line. That may include better crossing guards and perhaps pedestrian bridges near schools and playgrounds. The issue will be who pays for those improvements, he said.

The DM&E's headquarters are in Brookings, and despite differences over the bypass, Herriot said he supports the project.

"We are happy for the DM&E," said Herriot. "We think the development of improved rail service across the state will be good for the whole state, including Brookings County."

Adams lives in the neighborhood that will be most affected by the new line that is expected to carry dozens of trains a day, each with 115 to 135 cars running at speeds up to 45 mph.

Two of his former neighbors who have since moved said they don't see Wednesday's decision as the end of the process, either.

"The decision from the STB was expected. They are not a regulatory agency. They work on behalf of the railroad. DM&E got what they paid for from the federal government," said Paul Johnson, an associate professor of plant science who opposes the plan for environmental reasons.

Johnson lived near the rail line but has since moved to a home in the country.

Even though it no longer affects him directly, he still thinks it's a bad idea. "Coal is not something we should be looking to burn more of. It's still a filthy fuel, and I don't believe the project is wise," he said.

Gary Larson, a plant science professor who moved out of the neighborhood a couple years ago, said the project should be stopped.

"We're going to disrupt a lot of wilderness areas and people's lives," he said.

Both Johnson and Larson said they had trouble selling their homes because people were hesitant to move into that neighborhood when it was possible the project could go forward.

Adams said the property already has begun to devalue even though no construction has started.

"My wife and I will be 80 years old this summer, so it's easier for us. That's not the case for young families who have invested in a home and hoped to live there for the rest of their lives," he said. "If this project ever happens, this strip of homes will be low-income housing."