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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Public gets say on depot leak

Within hours of discovering a broken underground drain pipe at a Hauser, Idaho, railroad refueling depot, workers began excavating the surrounding diesel-sodden soil. About 200 cubic yards of earth – roughly a dozen heaping dump truck loads – was removed during the initial effort to chase the plume of contamination, according to a 110-page report on the spill made public earlier this week by the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway Co.

Although scientists with the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality are continuing to sift through hundreds of pieces of data contained in the report, including soil and groundwater sample results, the document provides the best answer yet on how much diesel fuel was spilled into the ground above the Rathdrum-Spokane Valley aquifer. Chemical levels in 138 soil samples are being used to determine how much fuel-laden wastewater was spilled before the broken pipe was detected Dec. 10, said Marc Kalbaugh, DEQ’s site remediation manager.

“I’m still doing those calculations,” Kalbaugh said. “We’re sitting down and reviewing the report as fast as we can.”

The broken pipe was part of a system that drained water and spilled fuel from the facility’s high-speed refueling platform. About 25 trains per day are filled with diesel, antifreeze and lubricants at the depot. Although the platform and fuel storage areas are safeguarded by two or more layers of underground barriers, the PVC drain pipe was installed without that additional level of protection. The drainage system also had no gauge to measure the volume of wastewater.

Railroad spokesman Gus Melonas said shortcuts were not taken with the drainage system. “It was the industry standard,” he said.

One indication of the contamination comes from the excavated soil, which contained 1,636 pounds of petroleum hydrocarbons, according to the report. That equals roughly 225 gallons of chemicals, Kalbaugh said. Excavation stopped at a depth of 32 feet because of concerns over destabilizing surrounding structures.

The report also gives a first glimpse at how the railroad will fix the problem. One likely tool will be a combination of powerful vacuums and oxygen-injection systems used to vaporize and remove the petroleum from underground, according to a recommendation in the report. Four vapor wells have already been installed at the refueling depot, Kalbaugh said.

Apart from a plan to correct the problem, DEQ will also require that the railroad conduct a review of the facility’s design, including its leak-detection system, Kalbaugh said. “All the options are on the table for this facility. Nothing has been finalized.”

DEQ, which has faced criticism in recent weeks for not sharing information on the spill quickly enough, announced Wednesday it was opening a formal public comment period. There are no current plans for a public hearing, but the agency will accept comments through Feb. 14. Kalbaugh said public feedback will be reviewed before a final remediation plan is developed.

The agency will meet with BNSF next week to discuss cleanup options, said railroad spokesman Melonas. “We’re going to come up with the best corrective measures.”

Investigating the spill has already cost the railroad more than $1 million, Melonas said.

Soil and groundwater samples show most of the petroleum-related toxins at a depth of 40 to 120 feet below the surface, but traces were also found at the water table, which lies 160 feet below ground. The chemicals were likely pushed deep below the ground because of the “large volume of stormwater” draining from building roofs at the depot, according to the report.

Although two-thirds of the soil samples contained no detectable levels of petroleum-related chemicals, 13 samples exceeded state safety levels for benzene, xylene or naphthalene. One of the samples from 24 feet deep had 14 times the state limit for benzene. Long-term exposure to the colorless and odorless liquid is linked with leukemia, according to information from the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

None of the groundwater samples contained toxic chemicals above state standards, but traces of benzene were found at the water table in one of the test wells, according to the report.

A statement from DEQ accompanying the report says there’s no cause for immediate concern.

“Exposure to these low levels of contaminants does not pose a threat to human health,” the statement reads.

A more skeptical reaction was offered by Barry Rosenberg, director of the Kootenai Environmental Alliance, of Coeur d’Alene. The group is pushing for the depot to be closed until the railroad can prove no further threat exists to the region’s sole-source aquifer.

“This is an enormous amount of hydrocarbons,” Rosenberg said, minutes after reading the report. “This is a big problem.”

The investigation and analysis of the spill was prepared by the Spokane-based engineering firm GeoEngineers. It was financed by the railroad, with oversight from DEQ. The document is available for review at DEQ’s Coeur d’Alene office, 2110 Ironwood Parkway.

A copy has also been posted at

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