May 11, 2005 in Idaho

Depot refueling despite protest

By The Spokesman-Review
Jesse Tinsley photo

A day after a ruling allowed the BNSF Railway refueling depot to reopen, the depot is mostly idle, waiting for trains to be scheduled for stops at the depot near Hauser.
(Full-size photo)

at a glance

Railway depot

•The state Department of Environmental Quality agreed that the facility was safe to reopen.

•Five trains were serviced at the depot Monday night, a railroad spokesman said.

Locomotive fueling has resumed at BNSF Railway’s depot near Hauser, Idaho, despite protests from Kootenai County Commission Chairman Gus Johnson.The railroad expressed frustration over Johnson’s criticisms, which were levied Monday, hours after the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality agreed the facility was safe to reopen.

“We’re disappointed in Mr. Johnson’s position,” said BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas. “The county has indicated before that if DEQ was satisfied with repairs, that the county would not object” to the facility reopening.

Johnson said the depot wasn’t supposed to reopen without county permission. During a meeting planned for Thursday morning, Johnson said he will propose holding a public hearing to revoke the depot’s county-issued operating permit. At least one of Johnson’s fellow commissioners must also agree to the request. Neither commissioner returned repeated phone calls Tuesday.

Five trains were serviced at the depot Monday night, said railroad spokesman Melonas. “The process worked flawlessly.”

On Tuesday, 10 to 12 trains were expected to be topped off with fuel, motor oil and traction sand at the facility. The reopening brought immediate relief to congestion that has plagued the railroad’s northern mainline, which is a vital freight link between Northwest shipping ports and markets in Chicago and points east, Melonas said.

In 2000, Kootenai County commissioners voted 2-1 to let BNSF construct a high-speed fueling depot on the Rathdrum Prairie. According to one of the conditions of the permit, if the facility ever contaminates the aquifer – between 2,000 and 3,000 gallons of fuel are believed to have reached the groundwater from a leak discovered in December – the county must first grant clearance before the depot is allowed to resume operations.

After trouble was spotted at the depot, the county essentially stepped aside and relied on oversight authority from Idaho DEQ. The agency obtained a court order Feb. 23 to temporarily close the depot to allow a complete investigation. During a court hearing Monday, DEQ attorneys agreed to the depot reopening, saying the facility no longer threatens the purity of the region’s drinking water supply.

Marc Kalbaugh, site manager with DEQ, declined to comment on Johnson’s permanent closure request. But Kalbaugh expressed confidence in repairs made at the depot since it was ordered temporarily closed by a judge on Feb. 23.

Since the closure, BNSF says $7 million in repairs have been made to prevent diesel or motor oil from seeping into the aquifer below. The changes include five new layers of crack-resistant epoxy atop the fueling platform, electronic leak detection sensors buried below and tighter seals on fuel transport pipes. A series of angled wells were also drilled below waterproof liners buried below the depot. Powerful vacuums attached to the wells are capable of sucking up any fuel should a leak occur.

“We spent a lot of time and energy looking at this facility and where some of those weak areas are,” Kalbaugh said.

A new agreement also expands state monitoring authority at the site, Kalbaugh said.

Although Kalbaugh did not want to discuss the commissioner’s call to permanently close the depot, he made his opinion clear about the changes made at the site and of the state’s enhanced monitoring powers. Essentially, all of the state’s requests were met by the railroad, Kalbaugh said.

“It’s really comprehensive,” he said. “This is like a slam dunk.”

Kootenai County Building and Planning Director Rand Wichman declined to discuss Johnson’s push to revoke the operating permit, saying the decision is up to the commissioners.

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