Burlington Northern Railroad may move a locomotive refueling operation, including two huge diesel tanks, from the Spokane Valley to its switching yard near Rathdrum.
The railroad refuses comment on the plans or why the facility is being moved and expanded. But state and county officials confirm a proposal to build a service station for trains. The operation would have two 900,000-gallon diesel storage tanks that would refuel 20 to 30 locomotives daily - using about 5 million gallons of fuel a month.
“We have not made any decisions at this point,” said Gus Melonas, a Burlington Northern spokesman.
Some Kootenai County officials are cheering about the possible economic boost. But at least a few area residents are cringing about storing so much fuel over the Spokane-Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer.
Burlington Northern has refueling operations in the Spokane Valley and in Seattle. The Spokane Valley depot, also above the aquifer, has 35 employees and refuels 20 locomotives a day. It has one 300,000 gallon diesel storage tank and two tanks of lubricating oil that together hold 47,000 gallons - far less than the amount proposed in Rathdrum.
“From the taxpayers’ standpoint it increases the tax base in the county by $30 million with minimal impact,” said Dick Compton, chairman of the Kootenai County Board of Commissioners. “And you don’t have to build any roads, any schools or hire any police” because the facility would bring few new employees to the area.
Train crews from Whitefish, Mont., also would be staying in area motels and eating in area restaurants, adding cash to the local economy, Compton said. If this project works out, he said, there is the possibility the railroad will invest more money in the Rathdrum Prairie.
Terry Maple, of Rathdrum, has the opposite reaction. “I’m not thrilled at all,” she said. It reminds her of Washington Water Power Co.’s plans to put a 5 million gallon diesel storage tank near Rathdrum to provide backup fuel for its natural gas turbine.
“Two million, 5 million, that’s still entirely too much fuel to be stored above the aquifer,” Maple said. “The consequences of an oops are catastrophic, not only for Kootenai County, Coeur d’Alene, Rathdrum and Post Falls, but for Spokane also,” Maple said.
The aquifer is the area’s sole source of drinking water. “This whole Rathdrum Prairie is so porous that it’s hard to keep water on your trees,” Maple added. “When you have an accidental spill, it becomes a serious issue.”
The diesel would be delivered to the Hauser-Rathdrum area by rail and that’s also no comfort to Maple. “As you are aware, our railroad doesn’t have a sparkling record in terms of derailment.”
At least three Burlington Northern trains have derailed in North Idaho since 1991.
Maple predicted the Citizens for the Protection of the Rathdrum Prairie, which successfully fought the WWP diesel tank, will fight the railroad proposal.
Railroad officials refused to comment about the potential battle, again saying they haven’t made a firm decision. But local officials have an entirely different impression.
The Kootenai County Commissioners, legislators, and representatives from the Idaho Division of Environmental Quality met with railroad officials a few weeks ago to discuss the project.
“I would say that Burlington Northern officials have made a decision it’s going to happen and they have made a commitment that it’s going to be done right,” said John Sutherland of DEQ. “We’re going to be looking darn closely at waste water to make sure it’s not disposed of in a manner degrading to the Spokane-Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer.”
Runoff generated from precipitation could contain both fuel and solvents, he said.
The issue of the diesel tanks and the aquifer falls in the lap of the Panhandle Health District, which was not invited to the recent meeting.
“I do know it’s gone beyond the conceptual stage to some site layout,” said Dick Martindale of Panhandle Health.
“We should have been involved by now.”
Panhandle Health’s rules are fairly simple. Chemicals, fuel and other materials used or stored over the aquifer cannot get into the drinking water. Companies are left to show regulators how they can most efficiently meet the rules for making sure no spill hits the aquifer.
“There’s nothing preventing a project from occurring,” Martindale said. “But it’s absolutely vital to make sure the aquifer is protected.”
The sooner Panhandle Health gets involved, the faster the project can move. When it’s left out of the planning stages, costly changes sometimes have to be made to construction plans. “Nobody wants that,” Martindale said.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Graphics: Map of area around proposed locomotive refueling facility; What is an aquifer?