One or two high-profile polluters often get the blame for tainting the region’s drinking water.
But there are as many as 100 seemingly innocuous places in Kootenai County where antifreeze, oil, grease and heavy metals are being piped directly toward the aquifer.
The culprits are floor drains in automotive shops, printing establishments, bus garages and the like. Most aren’t connected to a city sewer. Instead, these drains dump “concentrated, nasty stuff” into injection wells - a violation of local health code and state law, said Jeff Lawlor of the Panhandle Health District.
Injection wells, also called dry wells, are concrete rings, about 3 feet in diameter and about 8 feet deep, buried in a gravel-filled hole. The rings are open at the top and bottom and have several openings in the sides to let liquid escape easily.
Because the ground is so porous, injection wells provide an easy way for the “nasty stuff” to go directly to the Rathdrum Prairie aquifer, Lawlor said. The aquifer is the chief source of drinking water for communities from Coeur d’Alene to Spokane.
It’s not known how much pollution is taking this route to the aquifer.
“The quantity is unimportant,” said Dick Martindale of the health district. “It doesn’t take much fuel to contaminate a water supply.”
The potential is cause for major worry.
“Once the problem shows up, it’s too late,” added Kreg Beck of the Idaho Division of Environmental Quality. “If it gets there, it’s unrecoverable.”
Panhandle Health District has been plugging floor drains or rerouting industrial wastewater to city treatment plants for about four years. Still, explosive growth, frequent changes in uses of commercial buildings and entrenched attitudes make the task exceedingly difficult.
As does tradition.
The health district was rebuffed in its first foray into plugging wells - by none other than the Idaho Department of Transportation.
The Transportation Department was building offices and shops in Coeur d’Alene. City sewer pipes were hooked up to the office side of the building. But floor drains in the shop, on the other side of the building, were being plumbed to injection wells because that’s the way it always had been done, Lawlor said.
Transportation officials also believed their building wasn’t subject to local health ordinances because the state - not local planning departments - oversees construction of state buildings, he said.
It took two years of fighting, all the way to the Idaho attorney general, to get the situation changed, he said.
Meanwhile, the Transportation Department was cleaning up 3,600 cubic yards of soil contaminated by similar floor drains and injection wells at its old Coeur d’Alene shop.
“We can’t expect the small (businesses) to do the right thing when the state, which is supposed to set the example, is putting in new injection wells,” Lawlor said.
With Kootenai County’s rapid growth, it is difficult to catch problems before buildings are well under construction. The eight cities in Kootenai County refuse to make the health district a mandatory stop on the road to getting a building permit. Only Kootenai County makes such a demand.
“They don’t want us slowing down the building permit process,” Lawlor said. But “we are not trying to close people down. We are trying to stop contamination from going into the ground water.”
And cities “aren’t doing (business people) any favors.”
If businesses contaminate the ground and ground water, they saddle themselves with expensive cleanup bills. Banks often check with regulatory agencies to find out if there’s contamination. Contamination can kill the financing for purchasing existing buildings or constructing on old sites.
Panhandle Health District often doesn’t know a shop is being built until long after construction has started. That makes for expensive modifications which leave business owners unhappy, Lawlor said.
Take George Beaudry. He spent $1 million remodeling his automobile dealership.
Then the health district discovered his shop floor drains led to an injection well. To install the correct plumbing, Beaudry dug “a 90-foot-long trench down the center of my new shop,” he explains, and tore up the asphalt outside.
He ended up spending $10,000 to put in an oil and water separator and a sediment trap and to re-plumb the floor drains to the city sewer system.
If Beaudry had known in advance, he could have done things correctly for between $500 and $1,000, he said.
“It’s a very lopsided way of the city doing business,” Beaudry said. It may take a little longer to include the health district in approving building permits, but it would save all around, he said.
Coeur d’Alene Administrator Ken Thompson acknowledges City Hall doesn’t want the Panhandle Health District reviewing building permits. There is so much anti-government sentiment, “we haven’t felt comfortable adding another layer of review.”
Ground-water contamination is a concern, but if there is any delay in building permits, “we know we’d end up being the guy who gets hammered,” Thompson said.
Existing buildings are the biggest problem. There is no way for the health district to know when a commercial building changes hands.
“One day, it may be something pretty mundane like a fabric shop,” Martindale said. “Then it changes hands and becomes a metal-plating shop.”
Any time a building is inside city limits, its owners assume the floor drains are hooked to the sewer system. But “most are not,” he said.
The key is not allowing commercial and industrial buildings anywhere there’s not sewer service. There’s plenty of available land served by sewers.
Yet, “the cheap land is where there’s no sewer,” Lawlor said. “So that’s where people are looking to develop.”