After a flurry of last-minute repairs and testing at its refueling depot north of Post Falls, BNSF Railway Co. is expected to return to a Coeur d’Alene courtroom this morning seeking permission to reopen the leak-plagued facility.
The decision hinges largely on the railroad’s ability to prove that plastic liners buried under the refueling facility are capable of protecting the purity of the region’s groundwater aquifer, which lies 160 feet below the depot.
A key hurdle for the depot is a test in which water is injected between the two plastic barriers to check for leaks, said Marc Kalbaugh, project manager for the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality. As of Tuesday, Kalbaugh said additional test results were needed before the agency would agree to reverse its position that the depot was a threat to human health.
“We have questions,” Kalbaugh said. “We are working diligently to review the data, all the data.”
The $42 million facility fueled its first locomotive Sept. 1, but it has been shuttered the past two months because of a court order obtained by DEQ. The agency said numerous leaks of diesel fuel found at the depot threatened the purity of the Rathdrum Prairie/Spokane Valley Aquifer, which supplies drinking water to more than 400,000 people.
BNSF has refused to provide details on much of the repair work at the site. The company has also denied repeated requests by The Spokesman-Review to visit the property.
The newspaper asked experts familiar with the work to address questions raised by the spills.
Q: Is the water still safe to drink?
A: Yes, according to a variety of groundwater samples gathered by Idaho Department of Environmental Quality. Traces of chemicals found in diesel have been found in wells on BNSF’s property, but at levels “way below” the danger threshold for human health, Kalbaugh said.
“We do not have an immediate or substantial threat from whatever releases which have occurred to date,” Kalbaugh said, who added that he lives in Hauser and drinks the water. “I drink it right out of the tap.”
The nearest municipal wells, about a mile away in Hauser, Idaho, have been tested weekly in recent months in response to the leaks. The water remains safe, according to information from the Hauser Water Board. Although much remains unknown about the aquifer, studies indicate that groundwater flows from the depot toward Spokane at a rate of about 10 feet a day. At that rate, it could take more than 50 years to reach the city of Spokane’s wells.
Q: Why did the depot leak?
A: The first trouble was spotted in early December when a cracked underground PVC pipe that carries diesel-laced wastewater was found to be leaking unchecked into the ground. BNSF officials later said they believe the pipe was cracked during construction. State officials believe the spill resulted in 2,000 to 3,000 gallons of diesel reaching the aquifer.
Then, in early February, BNSF reported a second, larger problem at the depot. Extensive cracks were found to be criss-crossing the refueling platform, allowing spilled fuel to seep below the facility. Buried fuel liners should have captured that fuel, but an investigation later revealed leaking seals on the two liners below the platform. In a letter to state officials, BNSF blamed the cracks on North Idaho’s freeze-thaw cycle. Kootenai County Planning Director Rand Wichman said he was told the cracks came from the concrete being allowed to harden too long before cuts were made to relieve internal stress. The cuts are meant to act much like cracks in a concrete sidewalk, Wichman said.
Q: Who built the depot?
A: BNSF hired Hanson-Wilson, a Kansas City (Mo.)-based engineering firm, to design the depot and oversee its construction. The design specifications require regular tests of the concrete strength, as well as complete tests of the depot’s structural integrity prior to opening. The firm’s project manager, Kenny Hancock, has not returned repeated phone calls from The Spokesman-Review. Lydig Construction, of Spokane, was the general contractor. Neither firm has been seen at the depot during the recent repairs, according to several people who have visited the site. BNSF has refused to comment on its relationship with either firm.
Q: Why was the depot built atop the aquifer?
A: Although the aquifer has special state and federal protections, there are no county zoning laws prohibiting BNSF from building the facility. The railroad has said the depot was needed to relieve congestion at its crowded refueling yard in Seattle. The Hauser site was ideal because it is near the intersection of several important rail lines.
Q: Why weren’t the problems discovered before the depot opened?
A: About a year before the depot opened, Kootenai County inspected the facility and issued a certificate of occupancy. County Planning Director Wichman said “hairline cracks” were spotted on the refueling platform, but the engineering project manager, Kenny Hancock, told him the cracks ” ‘were not a problem,’ ” Wichman said. “We had asked the appropriate questions.”
Q: Can the depot ever be made safe?
A: The state of Idaho and Kootenai County say the depot will be allowed to resume operations if BNSF can prove the strength of three layers of protection to the aquifer: two buried fuel liners, plus the sealed concrete fueling platform. Critics say huge risks remain, including the possibility of a fuel tanker car spilling, or additional construction flaws surfacing. Cars carrying more than 200,000 gallons of diesel daily rest atop tracks unprotected by fuel containment barriers.
Barry Rosenberg, executive director of the Kootenai Environmental Alliance, said the public is no longer willing to trust BNSF or public agencies charged with safeguarding the aquifer. The group has gathered more than 2,000 signatures on petitions calling for an independent investigation into the leaks and a permanent closure of the depot.
“This happened under the watch of the county commissioners and DEQ, and that’s why we need an independent evaluation of the situation,” Rosenberg said.