The Kootenai County Commission chairman feels more confident that the BNSF Railway refueling depot near Hauser, Idaho, was safe to reopen after hearing specific details about repairs and detection systems Wednesday.
“Four weeks ago I was one of the most vocal opponents but now I’m 95 percent more comfortable,” Commissioner Gus Johnson said after the hearing in which railroad and Idaho Department of Environmental Quality officials explained why they reopened the high-speed refueling facility on the Rathdrum Prairie.
The commission probably won’t make a decision for two weeks on whether it will pursue revoking the county permit that allows the depot to operate.
Johnson said he doesn’t see anything that would cause the county to move forward with revocation, especially if the county’s decision could be overturned in court. Yet Johnson and the other commissioners said they want an independent engineer to inspect the depot annually.
BNSF executives agreed, as long as the county picks up the bill.
DEQ obtained an emergency court order Feb. 23 to close the facility, following the discovery of a series of fuel leaks. At least one of the leaks dripped 1,800 gallons of diesel into the soil above the region’s soul source of drinking water. BNSF officials said Wednesday that the equivalent of about a teaspoon of diesel seeped down 160 feet to reach the aquifer – too small an amount to threaten human health or contaminate the water supply.
Johnson’s position on Wednesday was in stark contrast to his sentiments in May after a state judge cleared BNSF to resume refueling locomotives. Johnson demanded the meeting with state and railroad officials because DEQ agreed to open the facility without the commission’s input.
He cited the railroad’s original operating permit, granted by the county in 2000, which says that if the depot contaminates the aquifer, operations may resume “only after the appropriate public agency and Kootenai County have granted clearance.”
Other critics weren’t so confident after hearing BNSF and DEQ’s presentations.
“I’m not convinced,” said Barry Rosenberg of the Kootenai Environmental Alliance. “As long as the depot is over the aquifer there is a potential for problems.”
Rosenberg noted that the same experts had touted the facility as “state-of-the-art” facility before it was built, and had promised that no fuel would ever leak into the aquifer. He questioned why the recently added precautions and monitoring systems weren’t initially installed when the depot was built.
Commissioner Katie Brodie said she wanted BNSF and DEQ to provide the news media and public with a monthly report card showing how often monitoring alarms are tripped, the reason and the actions taken to correct any problems.
BNSF assistant vice president Steve Millsap once again apologized for the leaks and said they were an embarrassment to the railroad. He attributed the problems to poor workmanship and testing procedures, declining to go into detail because the railroad is preparing a lawsuit against the firms responsible for designing and building the depot.
Millsap said the railroad has learned from its mistakes at the Hauser facility and is changing how future refueling depots will be constructed, as well as the monitoring systems at BNSF’s existing 54 depots across the country. BNSF will no longer rely on contractors and will have a BNSF manager on-site to monitor and oversee construction, he said.
“This thing for BNSF has gone well beyond Hauser,” Millsap said. “We have learned a lot.”
About 30 demonstrators greeted people as they entered the County Administration Building for the meeting and showed copies of a petition signed by 7,000 area residents who want the depot moved so it is no longer over the aquifer.
Commissioner Rick Currie asked the protesters to move to the sidewalk so the front door wasn’t blocked.
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