SUPERIOR, WIS. – Behind the spacious and well-kept lawns of Superior’s Allouez neighborhood sit modest homes that largely adhere to a standard gray or brown color scheme — a necessity to keep taconite dust from becoming too obvious in between yearly cleanings.
On Monday siding had been scrubbed clean on many houses, while others showed the telltale dust that is a fact of life for the residents surrounding the Allouez Taconite Facility and docks not far from their homes on the eastern edge of Superior.
For nearly half a century, Burlington Northern Santa Fe would pay homeowner claims to help clean the gunk off their windows, garages, roofs and walls.
Now BNSF has stopped paying many claims, prompting city leaders to demand the railroad giant resume payments and catch up on claims that have been denied this year.
“Even people who power wash every year, there is damage — the dust coat is not insignificant and it is not just dust, it is chemical material, sticky, greasy, disgusting,” said Superior City Councilor Jenny Van Sickle, who lives in the neighborhood and has introduced a resolution calling on BNSF to continue paying claims, which the council will take up Tuesday night.
Van Sickle said about 200 homeowners were affected when the company abruptly started denying claims this summer without notice. Payments usually ranged from $200 to $500 — enough just to offset the water bill a power washing would rack up each year.
BNSF spokeswoman Courtney Wallace said the company had discovered “irregularities” in who was receiving payments.
“While BNSF has scaled back on our payments, there are claims still being paid,” she said. “We have identified irregularities that resulted in some claims being paid that were not anywhere near the Allouez facility. As a result, we’re currently reviewing our process to ensure that we are working with property owners who are truly being impacted.”
Payments began in the 1970s following prolonged court battles and community organizing. Van Sickle said there is no signed agreement that ensures the payments, and each resident must negotiate on their own in what she called a “cumbersome” process. About 24 residents out of the original 200 have been approved for payments this year, she said.
State Sen. Janet Bewley and state Rep. Nick Milroy, Democrats who represent the area, wrote to BNSF to say the company has broken an established precedent.
“Allouez families must live with taconite dust covering their yards, their houses and everything in between,” the letter says. “They rely on these small payments to maintain a good quality of living and ensure they can raise their families in clean, healthy environments. Suspending payments to assist with cleanup jeopardizes the well-being of Allouez families.”
The Allouez facility was built in 1892 and is the largest taconite dock in Duluth and Superior. It has a stockpile capacity of more than 5 million tons of Iron Range-mined ore that is shipped to steel mills.
The pandemic has disrupted rail business along with the rest of the economy, as BNSF saw its net income drop 15% in the second quarter this year compared to 2019. Profits still exceeded $1.1 billion for the quarter.
Van Sickle estimates yearly payments made to residents total up to $70,000.
“These payments are reasonable,” she said. “I have to assume they can swing it.”