Leaked wastewater at a Hauser, Idaho, railroad refueling yard might not pose any immediate health threats to the region’s drinking water, but local governments and regulatory agencies in Washington met last week to establish a network to keep a closer watch on the situation.
Water users are concerned about the extent of the contamination and groups ranging from the city of Spokane to the town of Millwood and the Liberty Lake Sewer and Water District are clamoring for the latest soil and water test results, said Jim Bellatty, manager of the Washington Department of Ecology’s water quality office in Spokane.
“We’re doing the best we can to keep each other informed,” Bellatty said, later adding, “We don’t think that there’s an immediate threat, but it’s hard to know what the long-term view on this is going to be.”
Groundwater sucked from the aquifer quenches the thirst of more than 400,000 people in the region. The purity of the water is scrutinized and governed by more than 20 government agencies and water districts, said Dr. Kim Thorburn, health officer for the Spokane Regional Health District.
“Since there are all these different jurisdictions, we really need to come together both to communicate and to make decisions,” Thorburn said.
The Idaho Department of Environmental Quality is overseeing an investigation into the spill, which was reported Dec. 10 at a high-speed railroad refueling depot operated by Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway Co. Preliminary results show only trace amounts of toxic chemicals reaching the aquifer. The railroad is expected to release more detailed data shortly, including a proposal to fix or contain the problem.
The network of Washington water users and regulators has not asked for a formal role in developing a cleanup plan or in monitoring the investigation, Thorburn said. “At this point, we don’t feel that we need to have any input because we feel very confident about the information we’re getting from DEQ.”
Idaho regulators have shared what they know with their colleagues in Washington, Thorburn said, but sometimes the information doesn’t always trickle down to the local level. At a meeting Thursday, water users and government agencies agreed to set up a better network to share and review data.
Scientists at the meeting also updated the group on the threat posed by the spill, Thorburn said. One option discussed was increasing the amount of monitoring at already established test wells near the state line.
“We want people to know we’re not taking this lightly,” Thorburn said.
One of the groups watching the situation the closest is the Consolidated Irrigation District, which supplies water to thousands of homes between Pines Road and the state line. Groundwater from below the railroad refueling depot flows toward the Spokane Valley.
“We were very concerned because we’re the closest one in Washington to that site,” said Bob Ashcraft, manager of the district.
Ashcraft feels confident, however, that the district’s faucets will continue to run clean and that test wells will not detect anything unusual. “We don’t anticipate we’re going to see any evidence of it,” he said.
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