When a state project manager arrived to investigate a leaking pipe at a massive refueling depot this month, he was surprised by what he saw: a single-walled plastic pipe with nothing but soil between it and the aquifer 150 feet below.
The pipes transferred wastewater daily, but also functioned as the depot’s emergency outlet if a catastrophic spill occurred at the 500,000-gallon facility near Rathdrum, Idaho.
“I wasn’t in on the design phase, but I was surprised myself,” said Marc Kalbaugh, site remediation manager for the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality. “It struck me as a bit curious. Why was this design put in place there?”
At the Panhandle Health District in Coeur d’Alene, environmental director Dick Martindale got a surprise of his own last week when he learned Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Co. planned to use the 8-inch pipes for emergency spills.
“The fact that it was also intended to contain fuel itself if it spilled is new information to me,” Martindale said Tuesday. “If the potential is there to move raw product, then it should be secondarily contained.”
At the Kootenai Environmental Alliance, executive director Barry Rosenberg issued a press release calling for a shutdown of the facility until the damage from the leaking pipe could be assessed and reviewed.
“Single-walled PVC piping with no containment? Unbelievable,” Rosenberg said this week. “This is drinking water.”
Kootenai County commissioners approved the depot in 2000 despite widespread public opposition to the plan to locate the depot above the sole source of drinking water for more than 400,000 people in Eastern Washington and North Idaho.
Now, critics are raising questions about why the state approved the project’s wastewater system with no barrier below it. Several people who have followed the project closely expressed surprise that the wastewater pipes – which run about 400 feet from the depot to a tank farm – would have been used to transport fuel during a spill.
Gus Melonas, a BNSF spokesman, said the company had worked to keep the groups informed of plans. He said the company is reviewing several possible changes to the wastewater system, but declined to provide further details.
One Idaho official called the pipes the “Achilles’ heel” of the $42 million facility, which otherwise includes state-of-the-art engineering to contain spills.
The wastewater system was not considered as great a risk as the giant refueling tanks and oil-and-water separators at the facility.
But in 1998, a state engineer advised the railroad to place a barrier under the pipes. However, the state approved the project even though the railroad did not follow the recommendation.
Martindale, the Panhandle Health District environmental director, said his agency had deferred the authority to review the design to Kootenai County and the Department of Environmental Quality. A Kootenai County official said his office received assurances from DEQ that it would handle containment issues during the project’s design.
Roger Tinkey, DEQ’s engineering manager in Coeur d’Alene, referred all calls to Kalbaugh, the project’s site remediation manager. Kalbaugh, who has been with the state agency only 10 months, said he was not involved in the construction and referred calls to the engineering department.
“It certainly sounds reasonable to me that they need to re-engineer that wastewater system,” Kalbaugh said. “That’s evident to me.”
Kootenai County commissioners Gus Johnson and Dick Panabaker, who voted to approve the project, did not return calls this week. Commissioner Rick Currie, who was not on the board at the time, said he is waiting for final test results before commenting further.
Kalbaugh said the project met all 33 requirements of the county’s permit.
The leak at the depot, which was discovered Dec. 10 but may have been present for months, apparently reached the aquifer, according to preliminary data collected last week. The railroad originally planned to release more data on the extent of the contamination this week, but now believes it won’t be available until next week.
At the time, the pipes were transporting wastewater with small amounts of diesel and fuel.
The railroad has declined to release cost estimates to dig up the pipes and place a barrier underneath them.
Rand Wichman, Kootenai County’s planning and building director, estimated it would have cost the railroad a few thousand dollars to provide a containment barrier during the original construction.
“It wouldn’t have been near as expensive as it will be if they have to retrofit it now,” he said.
A railroad spokesman said the company has shut down the wastewater system while it investigates problems with the pipe. The railroad is using trucks to transport wastewater as operations continue at the train refueling depot.
While the state said it approves of the backup plan, Rosenberg is not satisfied.
“I have never encountered so much widespread concern and anger in the over 20 years I have been dealing with environmental issues,” Rosenberg said. “Whatever it takes, the public’s sole source of drinking water needs to be secure and free of contaminants.”