Athena Kinsey doesn’t mind being taken for a free ride.
The Hauser woman couldn’t wait Friday to board one of BNSF Railway’s vintage passenger cars – sleek and silvery with names like Missouri River and Snoqualmie – for a two-hour, round-trip excursion to Sandpoint.
“Yes, we are,” Kinsey proudly told the dozen protesters standing outside the gate to the railway’s refueling depot when they shouted that she was being taken for a ride.
BNSF officials were adamant that the excursion with 354 riders – mostly Hauser and Rathdrum residents – was no publicity stunt to regain the public’s trust even though it was just days before the Kootenai County Commission’s meeting Wednesday about the depot.
The facility near Hauser recently reopened after government officials shut down the new $42 million high-speed refueling depot because of cracks and leaky pipes that caused small amounts of diesel to leak into the region’s drinking water aquifer 160 feet below.
Not everyone was convinced the reopening was the right move.
“BNSF The Deadly Polluter” read one sign, which also featured a hand-sketched skull and crossbones.
Hayden resident Bob Riddle held up a piece of poster board reading “Thanks DEQ,” conveying his disappointment after the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality agreed last month to allow the depot to reopen. Riddle said the railroad needs to move the refueling depot, which services about 30 trains a day, off the aquifer.
But Kinsey and her mother-in-law, Dana Kinsey, both agree that the depot benefits Hauser and the neighboring communities and that the railroad has fixed the problem, making $10 million in repairs. Besides, a train ride is a rare experience for kids, such as Athena Kinsey’s daughter Syranie, 5, and son Leviathan, 4. The pair fidgeted with excitement as they waited in a long line that snaked into the parking lot to board the train.
Dana Kinsey said they expected to see the protesters. “They think we are being schmoozed by BN,” she said.
County to consider permit
The County Commission will use the information presented by BNSF and DEQ Wednesday to decide whether the county wants to revoke the permit that allows the depot to operate. The permit was issued in 2000 by a different set of county commissioners.
But first, the commissioners and their legal staff must figure out whether they have the authority to shut down the depot. They also want to know if the county can demand an independent review of the facility and whether the $5 million bond the railroad posted would pay for that study.
Conversation on the 11 cars during the ride mostly avoided the debate about the depot. People chatted with family and friends, laughed with their children and pointed out sites outside the large windows as the train gently swayed through Rathdrum, Athol and Cocolalla.
“Take it easy and go slow, baby!” one woman yelled as the train crossed Lake Pend Oreille on its way into Sandpoint.
Since the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe companies merged in 1995, the railway has offered employees in various areas across the nation a special train ride.
The Hauser side trip for the general public and media was added to the schedule.
“With the opening of the new facility, we thought it was a good opportunity to showcase our investment,” BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas said while giving a quick tour of the wood-paneled executive cars where select riders and media were served London broil steak with dumplings on china plates.
Besides the white-linen dining car, there was a cocktail car and a lounge with a suede couch and leather chairs.
“Look,” Melonas said pointing out the window at the yard filled with trains waiting for fuel. “Look how clean it is.”
Toward the front of the train, the Kinsey family sat at tables with cushy bench seats eating pre-packaged cheese, cracker and turkey snacks. The food and drink service was nearly constant – pretzels, nuts, Rice Krispies treats, fruit rolls and gourmet candies.
All the children on board got paper conductor hats and coloring books. The self-proclaimed train buffs – mostly retired, gray-haired men – got lots of pictures of the vintage cars.
“It’s beautiful over there,” Syranie Kinsey said about the pine trees and mountains near Kelso Lake. Another quick glace and her thick braid of brown hair was flying as she tickled her uncle who joined the family outing.
The mayors of Hauser and Rathdrum each got 175 tickets to dole out to residents, but neither went on the excursion himself.
Melonas said all the seats were filled for Friday’s trip.
“I’ve never seen more ‘thank-yous’ as people were leaving,” he said. “There were lots of smiles and lots of excitement.”
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