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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
News >  Idaho

Railroad sues firms that built, designed depot

BNSF Railway is demanding $18 million from the Spokane construction company and the Illinois-based engineering firm hired by the railroad to build a high-speed refueling depot atop the Spokane Valley/Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer.

A series of fuel leaks discovered at the depot threatened the purity of the drinking water for 500,000 people in the region and prompted an Idaho judge to issue an emergency shutdown order in February. The refueling depot reopened May 10.

The leaks were the result of negligence and broken promises from the builders and designers of the facility, according to a lawsuit filed last week in U.S. District Court in Coeur d’Alene. Named in the suit are the project’s general contractor, Lydig Construction, of Spokane, and the engineering firm Hanson-Wilson, of Kansas City, Mo.

In December, three months after the $42 million depot was opened, diesel-tainted wastewater was discovered to have been leaking unchecked into the ground at the facility. Tests later showed traces of diesel in the groundwater 160 feet beneath the depot.

State health officials say the contamination level was too low to threaten human health. Additional leaks were discovered at the depot in February. Crews worked around the clock during the subsequent 74-day, court-ordered closure to fix the leaks, including overhauling the pair of plastic liners buried below the train refueling platform.

BNSF blames the trouble on Lydig and Hanson-Wilson, claiming the companies improperly designed, built and tested the depot. Both businesses were made aware that the project’s location over the aquifer demanded the highest level of quality, according to the 28-page lawsuit. The railroad is seeking $7.5 million for repairing the depot, $6.7 million for the cost of lost and delayed business and $3.5 million for the cost of investigating and cleaning up the spill. BNSF is also asking the firms to pay a $100,000 state fine.

Calls to Hanson-Wilson were referred to the company president, Gary Potts, who could not be reached for comment. Lydig Construction President Larry Swartz responded to the accusations by issuing a four-page statement, which described the lawsuit as “unfortunate and unwarranted.”

The problems stem from design and cost-cutting measures taken by BNSF and Hanson-Wilson, according to the statement from Lydig. The 49-year-old construction company also said the record will show that BNSF and Hanson-Wilson “closely and continuously inspected and approved all of Lydig Construction’s work throughout the project.”

Lydig backed its claims with a copy of a letter sent to the Kootenai County Building Department by Chuck Cook, Hanson-Wilson’s resident engineer for the depot project. The letter, which was dated July 30, 2004, states that “all construction for this facility has been completed in accordance with the approved drawings and specifications.” Hanson-Wilson was required to inspect and test the depot before it opened, according to the lawsuit.

According to the statement from Lydig, “It is inappropriate for BNSF to attempt to pin the blame on Lydig Construction for work already acknowledged to have been properly completed.”

BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas declined to comment on the lawsuit.

The railroad is continuing to upgrade environmental safeguards at the depot, which is near the Idaho-Washington border about five miles north of Post Falls, said Marc Kalbaugh, site remediation manager for the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality. Repairs to the facility’s wastewater system – where the first leak was discovered – are expected to be completed shortly, he said.

BNSF is working with the state to develop an improved leak detection and monitoring plan, which was one of the conditions in the court order allowing the facility to resume operations, Kalbaugh said. “They have been following through with what they said they were going to do,” he said.

A series of wells at the depot are being used to suck spilled diesel fuel out of the ground and surrounding groundwater. Some of the wells inject air deep into the ground to vaporize the fuel; other wells directly vacuum out the spilled fuel.

Regular groundwater tests continue to detect traces of fuel, but at levels “well below” what the state believes would endanger human health, Kalbaugh said.

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