Safety concerns call for railroad changes near Pig’s Eye Lake


courtesy of Google Maps • Neighbors and businesses near Pig’s Eye Lake and the Red Rock barge and railroad terminal are dealing with a complex problem involving worker safety and preserving natural resources caused by trains blocking access to the area for hours at a time.

courtesy of St. Paul Port Authority • Businesses located at Red Rock terminal along Red Rock Road are being blocked for hours by train cars that are being unloaded at the terminal. This is making it difficult for workers to get to and leave work and poses a safety problem — no access for emergency response teams. Each circle represents a blocked entrance.

courtesy of St. Paul Port Authority • The St. Paul Port Authority, which leases the land to the businesses at Red Rock terminal, has come up with a solution that was shared at an Aug. 21 community meeting. It’s solution is to create an additional railroad spur, seen in yellow, north of Gavilon company, to create more space for railcars.

Neighbors worry about maintaining access to natural resources

 

Neighbors and businesses near Pig’s Eye Lake and the Red Rock barge terminal are stuck in a complex problem, one that involves safety, natural resources and the railroad. 

The problem is this: Red Rock is a busy barge and railroad terminal. It’s also home to about 10 businesses — a steel mill, concrete supplier, grain and fertilizer supplier and more — that are dependent on river commerce. As trains unload their goods at the terminal, though, they block the entrances to the businesses — sometimes for up to two hours — creating serious safety concerns. 

Fed up with the problem, the companies, which rent land from the St. Paul Port Authority, reached out to the Port Authority in 2015 to find a solution.

During an Aug. 21 community meeting, the Port Authority shared what it had come up with as a solution, but it left residents less than satisfied when it comes to access to their neighborhood’s natural resources. 

 

River commerce

The St. Paul Port Authority owns the land on which the four barge terminals in St. Paul are located, including Red Rock barge terminal, which is west of Highway 61 and just north of the Interstate 494 and Highway 61 interchange.

Red Rock terminal is home to about 600 daily workers, has about 750 trucks passing through it every day, and ships about 2.7 million tons of materials — fertilizers, grains, scrap metal and steel — each year.

Because of the high traffic and limited space, it takes a while for train cars to be unloaded at the terminal, as they must be separated and re-attached multiple times to make room for trains that can be longer than 100 cars. While this goes on, trains are stretched on the tracks that run along Red Rock Road, blocking the entrances to the businesses. 

Continental Cement Company, one of the businesses often blocked by trains, has video surveillance footage of workers crawling under and through railroad cars trying to get to work, which was shared at the Aug. 21 meeting, causing some in the audience to gasp.

Continental representatives, as well as representatives from other businesses at the terminal, said in addition to people not being able to get to work, they are concerned about a lack of access for emergency response teams and the unnecessary danger that puts their employees and customers in. 

Other neighbors and businesses added that traffic will get so backed up due to train blockages that Minnesota State Patrol officers have to be called in to direct traffic. 

 

Spurring solutions

Kathryn Sarnecki, vice president of redevelopment and harbor management for the St. Paul Port Authority, has been working on a solution based on objectives laid out by community feedback. Those objectives include safety, keeping the terminal as an economic driver for the city and region, increased public water access, preventing environmental degradation and improving terminal operational efficiency. 

Keeping those goals in mind, the solution Sarnecki presented involves using about seven acres of land owned by St. Paul Parks and Recreation to create a railroad spur north of Gavilon, a grain and fertilizer distributor that is served by a majority of the train cars. 

To acquire the land, the Port Authority will need to make what is called a parkland diversion request to obtain it, which will go before the St. Paul Parks and Recreation Commission and then on to the city council, creating opportunities for residents to give feedback. In exchange for the land, the Port Authority will either pay the market-rate value of the land into a city-owned parks fund or, give about 24 acres of Port Authority land to be added to Crosby Farm Regional Park.

If the land acquisition is approved, the Port Authority and Gavilon will design and plan the project, which will include mandatory wetland impact mitigation. Both entities will pay for the project, creating no cost for the city. 

The Port Authority, in an attempt to address the issues of access and environmental degradation, said it will donate $100,000 to the Great River Passage, an organization that is trying to start the creation of a schematic plan incorporating all aspects and stakeholders of the river — commerce, ecological impacts, access, cultural and sacred sites — into a single shared plan for St. Paul. 

However, based on the reactions and comments shared by residents during the Aug. 21 meeting, it seems as though neighbors aren’t on board with the plan, yet.

 

Need more access

This particular area of the river is very complex, said Mary deLaittre, manager at Great River Passage. 

While it serves as an important economic hub for the city, it’s also a migratory hub, with Pig’s Eye Lake being one of four nesting areas in the state for the yellow-crowned night heron. The floodplain forest around the lake also supports nesting colonies of other colonial waterbirds, including the great blue heron, great egret, black-crowned night heron and the double-crested cormorant.

Ramsey County, which manages Pig’s Eye Regional Park, recently conducted a study with the U.S. Corps of Engineers for a possible habitat creation project. Islands may be added to Pig’s Eye Lake as additional habitat for the nesting birds. 

Much of the area of the Mississippi River in St. Paul also has cultural significance. There are sacred Dakota sites along the river, including the East Side’s Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary.

With both the economic and ecological aspects, neighbors struggled with the idea of the additional tracks, especially because they would create a barrier between Pig’s Eye and Eagle lakes, which are both popular for fishing. Eagle Lake is just south of Pig’s Eye Lake, surrounded by Red Rock Terminal. 

Neighbors said the area is already hard to access, with only informal trails to the regional park. They wanted to see more access to the park incorporated in the plan. 

Tom Dimond, a neighbor and former St. Paul City Council member, said that “parks and neighborhoods keep losing,” especially on the East Side. He said that while other affluent neighborhoods have direct access to resources like this “we don’t have diddly squat.” The statement was followed by enthusiastic applause from the audience. 

Rep. Sheldon Johnson, who represents House District 67B and lives in the neighborhood, said the solution needs to lock down more community benefits and access to the area, adding that the money the Port Authority is donating to the Great River Passage schematic plan is not enough.

 

More trains?

Other neighbors also were concerned about whether the railroad — Canadian-Pacific Railroad uses Red Rock terminal — would just use the additional track to increase the number of cars pushed through the area, thereby not solving the problem and only benefitting the railroad company. 

“I want to see a signature in blood that that will never happen,” said Jane Prince, St. Paul City Council member for Ward 7, who represents the neighborhood. Canadian-Pacific representatives were in the audience at the Aug. 21 meeting, but did not comment on this issue. 

Both Minnesota state law and St. Paul city ordinances state that public roads and traffic cannot be blocked for more than 10 minutes by trains, engines or train cars. However, railroads are under the authority of the federal government and it’s unclear how, or if, local ordinances can be applied.

Monte Hillman, senior vice president of real estate development at the Port Authority, said the Port Authority would own the land where the new track would be located and have agreements and stipulations with the railroad in its land use contracts preventing such a thing from happening. 

He added that the Port Authority is “putting itself out there” with this project and won’t move forward without those guarantees. 

A representative from Gerdau steel mill added that the community and project leaders “can’t lose sight of safety.” 

While neighbors acknowledged and said they didn’t want to diminish safety issues, they said they also want a solution with better access to natural resources in their neighborhood.

The project is currently in the community feedback stage. The District 1 Community Council is collecting feedback about the proposal, which will be shared with Prince and others involved in the process. Feedback can be shared at www.district1council.org or by calling the District 1 Community Council office at 651-578-7600. 

The council will be collecting feedback through Aug. 31. Prince’s office can be contacted directly at 651-266-8670.

 

– Marjorie Otto can be reached at 651-748-7816 or at eastside@lillienews.com. Follow her on Twitter at @EastSideM_Otto

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