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What’s a guarantee worth to our aquifer?

 (The Spokesman-Review)
(The Spokesman-Review)
Frank Sennett Correspondent

Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway Co. continues to endanger our aquifer by operating its North Idaho diesel refueling station with an inadequate and compromised system for handling emergency spills. Every day that passes without a shutdown reminds me of a letter BNSF President & CEO Matthew K. Rose sent to the Kootenai County commissioners in 2000. He wrote, “I pledge to you personally that we will construct and operate our facility in an exemplary manner, ever mindful of the importance of the ground water resources.” I drafted a letter of my own this week, asking Rose to make good on his personal pledge. Here’s the text:

Dear Mr. Rose,

In 2000, you gave the people of North Idaho and Spokane your personal guarantee BNSF would build and operate its Hauser diesel refueling station in a way that protected the aquifer more than 400,000 residents rely on as their sole source of drinking water.

I am writing as one of those residents. Because we all need to know how you plan to honor your personal pledge to protect our drinking water, I will reproduce the text of this letter – as well as your response to it – in the column I write for The Spokesman-Review’s weekly 7 section. (I will not, however, be printing your home address. I favor civil discourse over irresponsible theatrics and do not wish to encourage harassment.)

The apology BNSF issued after discovering the waste-pipe spill was a good start. But for apologies and personal pledges to have meaning, they must be backed up with good-faith actions. If you agree, please explain how you will personally direct your company to deal with the following issues.

1. Although initial tests indicated our drinking water was not severely impacted by the months-long spill, soil samples indicate high levels of toxic chemicals now sit above the water table. What will you direct BNSF to do to remove tainted soils before those substances can leach into the aquifer?

2. The refueling platform and holding tanks at the Hauser facility have been touted as using state-of-the-art technology. Yet your company directed wastewater between the platforms and tanks through standard PVC pipes. Those pipes, one of which has already leaked, are also supposed to handle major diesel spills at the depot. How, in good conscience, can you continue to operate the platform when a major spill now could literally poison our drinking water?

3. The conditional-use permit issued by Kootenai County stipulates that the refueling station must shut down if there is a spill. There has been a spill, and yet the station continues to operate. Will you personally direct BNSF to abide by the permit and cease normal operations until the railroad can remove tainted soils and install a state-of-the-art system for handling emergency spills? If not, why not?

4. BNSF has been slow to release test results and other information related to the spill. Will you pledge going forward to operate the Hauser facility in a more transparent and responsive manner?

I am not a lawyer, so I do not know if your written pledge makes you personally liable in a legal sense for any aquifer contamination caused by BNSF at the Hauser facility. However, we all have a moral and ethical responsibility to live up to our word. I call on you to do just that.

Thank you for taking the time to seriously consider these issues. I and more than 400,000 other citizens await your timely reply.

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