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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Refueling depot assurances have oily feel

Barry Rosenberg Special to The Spokesman-Review

Representatives of BNSF Railway and the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality repeatedly used the word “redundancy” at the June 15 informational hearing called by the Kootenai County commissioners.

The seemingly contrite BNSF representatives assured the commissioners that they really got this “state of the art” thing down this time. The new “redundant” safeguards will assure protection of the Spokane-Rathdrum Prairie aquifer. They are not saying that there won’t be leaks at their Hauser, Idaho, refueling facility; it’s just that they will supposedly catch any leaks before they contaminate the aquifer. DEQ concurred.

The true redundancy is that history is repeating itself. The same entities are making the same assurances, using the same language and are still ignoring the will of the people as they did during the process to locate BNSF’s depot over the aquifer. The majority of the public was right when they said the depot would contaminate the aquifer and they are right in their belief that it will fail again. Four new small holes in the primary containment layer were detected, according to BNSF testimony during a court hearing in May.

A frustrated public had to sit in silence while the commissioners lobbed mostly softball questions at DEQ and BNSF. A hearing, where the public can comment and ask questions, is way past due.

What happened to the promise made by DEQ to allow the public to review and comment before it signed any consent agreement with BNSF? Not only did DEQ break that promise, but it also failed to consult with the county commissioners before signing agreements that let BNSF resume its fueling operations. That made Commissioner Gus Johnson furious and he called for BNSF to vacate the premises. He held out some hope to a surprised public and they showered Gus with praise.

He should have been angry because one of the conditions of the notorious conditional use permit, drawn up by the county and signed by BNSF, explicitly states that once the depot is shut down, it may resume operations “only after the appropriate public agency(s) and Kootenai County have granted clearance.” This was not done – therefore the depot was re-opened illegally. DEQ acknowledged to the Kootenai Environmental Alliance that it does not have the authority to shut down the fueling depot permanently. Unfortunately, Gus’s fury was short-lived and by the end of the hearing he was 95 percent more comfortable with the fueling depot.

The agreements signed by DEQ and BNSF mandate the kind of monitoring devices, protection and inspection procedures that should have been in place when the fueling facility was first constructed.

During the hearing, BNSF had the audacity to downplay the 1,800-gallon leak of diesel fuel that was discovered just three months after the fueling depot began operations. Some of the diesel fuel has already made its way to the aquifer.

I particularly enjoyed BNSF’s demonstration to the commissioners of the safeguards built into its big fueling nozzle. The commissioners failed to ask how, if the nozzle is so safe, 1,800 gallons of diesel fuel got to the crushed pipe in the first place? The answer is obvious: through a not so “state of the art” fueling nozzle, combined with a sloppy fueling process.

The only encouraging thing that came out of the proceeding was when Commissioner Johnson asked BNSF if it would allow an independent engineer to evaluate the activities at the depot. Steve Millsap, the BNSF representative said yes, as long as the county footed the bill. I suggest that Mr. Millsap read the conditional use permit. It allows the county to “hire independent quality assurance/quality control inspectors as necessary to evaluate the construction of the Facility” with the cost to be paid by the applicant, meaning BNSF.

The permit also allows Kootenai County to use a $5 million environmental protection bond posted by BNSF to cover costs that result from environmental contamination from the facility.

Until we get a hearing where the public can participate, you can get your voice heard by signing and gathering signatures on the Kootenai Environmental Alliance’s petition that demands that the fueling depot move off the aquifer. If nowhere else, the public’s voice will be heard at the ballot box.

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