Water samples confirmed Thursday that petroleum contaminants from a railroad refueling depot in North Idaho have reached the region’s sole-source aquifer.
The preliminary samples found detectable levels of petroleum hydrocarbons in the water, which lies about 150 feet below a 500,000-gallon refueling depot operated by Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Co. The giant underground aquifer provides drinking water for more than 400,000 people in Kootenai and Spokane counties.
An official with the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality cautioned that the results are preliminary and more information will be analyzed in the coming days.
“It would be irresponsible to make conclusions until we have complete results,” said Geoff Harvey, waste and remediation director for DEQ’s office in Coeur d’Alene.
Mike LaScuola, an environmental health specialist with the Spokane Regional Health District, expressed surprise that the contaminants could be located in an aquifer with a volume of 10 trillion gallons.
“The aquifer is such a high-volume source that it’s usually fairly difficult to detect contaminants,” LaScuola said. “When you do find it, you really do have to be concerned.”
The test results provided the first confirmation that contaminants reached the aquifer, nearly three weeks after railroad workers detected a leaking wastewater pipe. On Thursday, the railroad company also released the results of soil samples that showed some contaminant levels well above Idaho limits.
Samples from one site showed the levels of naphthalene, a toxic chemical, were four times Idaho’s limit for soils. Other samples indicated levels of benzene and xylenes were more than five times higher than the state standard.
“If you want to be protective of groundwater, I would say that the water is at just as much of a risk as what you are finding in the soils,” LaScuola said. “Its potential definitely appears to exceed drinking water standards.”
The railroad said it would release more detailed water samples today or early next week.
“We apologize for this incident, and reaffirm our commitment to protection of the aquifer,” BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas said in a press release.
The preliminary water samples indicated petroleum hydrocarbons at a concentration of 350 micrograms per liter. However, Washington sets its drinking water standards based on the chemicals – such as benzene and naphthalene – not on the levels of petroleum hydrocarbons. It’s not yet clear whether the contamination violates Washington’s standards.
The records’ release comes after a week in which public officials and environmental leaders repeatedly criticized BNSF for failing to quickly alert the public about the leak and provide test results.
“It’s been way too long,” said Jon Sandoval, DEQ’s chief of staff in Boise. “I’m a little concerned here. We’ve been as aggressive as we can.”
However, Sandoval said that it is up to the railroad – not the state agency – to release test results.
Post Falls Mayor Clay Larkin, who criticized Kootenai County commissioners for approving the refueling depot in 2000, said the railroad has not provided information in a timely manner.
“I get a lot of calls every week,” Larkin said. “People want to know, ‘Is my water’s safe?’ I don’t have a definitive answer.”
Railroad officials learned of the leak on Dec. 10 and informed the public four days later. A spokesman said the pipe – which carried wastewater and small amounts of diesel and other contaminants – apparently was fractured during construction of the $42 million depot, which opened this fall.
BNSF did not place a containment barrier under the wastewater pipes, which run about 400 feet from the refueling depot to a tank farm. The single-walled plastic pipes also functioned as an emergency outlet in case of a massive diesel spill. That system has been shut down, but the railroad company continues to operate the depot as normal, according to BNSF officials.
Environmental leaders have accused the railroad company of bullying the state agency charged with overseeing the facility.
After receiving a phone call from a BNSF attorney, an Idaho state environmental engineer on Thursday retracted a statement he made last week regarding the depot. The engineer, Gary Gaffney, had confirmed that a 1998 memorandum recommended the railroad place a containment barrier underneath the wastewater pipes.
The memo in question, dated Feb. 12, 1998, informed railroad consultants that “a reliable containment barrier needs to be provided under all areas that involve wastewater or the potential for spills … “
On Thursday, Gaffney said the statement did not apply to the depot’s wastewater system.
“Now that I’ve looked at it and thought about it some more, it was my intent to discuss fueling platforms not the wastewater lines,” Gaffney said. “I’m sorry that I arrived at that conclusion last week.”
Asked whether the state environmental agency would now require a barrier under the wastewater system, Gaffney said, “You’d have to talk to BN about what they plan to do. If they make any changes to the industrial wastewater system, we will make a determination on whether that’s acceptable or not.”
Gaffney said he had not been pressured by BNSF to change his statement.