Each year, BNSF Railway Co. pays about $100,000 for programs that protect the Spokane Valley/Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer.
The money is funneled through the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality, where it helps teach school kids about the aquifer that provides drinking water to more than 500,000 of the region’s residents; pays for inspections of industrial sites, including BNSF’s diesel refueling depot in Hauser; and funds collaborative work with other agencies aimed at keeping the aquifer free of contaminants.
The payments date to the 2004 opening of the depot, where up to 4,000 gallons of diesel fuel is pumped into each locomotive. But BNSF wants the payments to stop after 2013.
The money goes toward aquifer work that is “mostly unrelated” to the depot and its operations, wrote Janet Robnett, BNSF’s attorney, in a letter to the Kootenai County board of commissioners.
The dispute is part of a lawsuit BNSF filed against Kootenai County in late October. At issue: what regulations the county can impose on the refueling depot, which lies over the aquifer.
Commissioners want BNSF to make the payments for as long as the depot remains in operation. The $100,000 pays for the equivalent of one DEQ staff position, plus benefits, travel, supplies and equipment.
“There’s the possibility of great risk to the aquifer,” said Todd Tondee, a Kootenai County commissioner. “We think (BNSF) should be willing to pay” for the DEQ position.
In the lawsuit, BNSF’s attorneys said that operations at the refueling depot are governed by federal transportation laws, and that the county can’t impose its own rules.
BNSF and Kootenai County negotiated the original payments as part of a conditional use permit for the depot, which said that the payments would continue through 2013, with the possibility of the county extending the annual payments “should it appear necessary or beneficial.”
The original intent was for BNSF to fund a DEQ staff position devoted to depot inspections, said Dan Redline, DEQ’s regional administrator in Coeur d’Alene. However, both the railroad and the agency realized “there wouldn’t necessarily be enough work” to keep that person busy, he said. Meanwhile, other important aquifer duties wouldn’t get done.
As a result, the agreement with BNSF was modified to allow for other aquifer protection activities, Redline said.
DEQ hasn’t taken a position on whether the funding should continue beyond 2013, Redline said.
If the funding disappears, DEQ would look for other ways to pay for the “protection the public seems to demand for the aquifer,” he said.
Gus Melonas, BNSF spokesman, could not be reached for comment this week. But in past interviews, Melonas said that the depot has been problem-free since 2005. He also noted that the Hauser depot was determined to be in compliance with its permit conditions during a five-year review conducted by the county last year.
BNSF and the county are trying to resolve the dispute over future funding, according to documents filed in U.S. District Court in Coeur d’Alene. Last week, county commissioners toured the depot and held a workshop with BNSF officials.
In addition to continued funding for aquifer protection programs, the commissioners also want changes to the conditional use permit determining when the depot would shut down in event of a leak.
“In my opinion, we need to come up with something that we can agree on, so that the depot would shut down before the leak reaches the aquifer,” Tondee said.
BNSF has expressed concerns that false alarms could shut down the depot, which is a major refueling stop for trains carrying goods between Northwest ports and markets in the Midwest and farther east.