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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Let us sing a song of oil leaks and trains

Apart from the protest marches, petition drives and letter-writing campaigns, opponents of BNSF Railway’s Hauser fuel depot have injected a bit of creativity into their struggle.

There have been jokes, poems, a song and at least one drink recipe launched in recent weeks by those trying to permanently shutter the depot, which has been undergoing a massive overhaul after fuel leaks were discovered at the facility this winter.

Coeur d’Alene protester Dave Larson spouted a bit of gallows humor Thursday morning as he marched in front of the Kootenai County Courthouse minutes before a hearing began to determine whether the depot should be allowed to reopen. The spill will actually help with energy conservation, Larson suggested. Heating water for a cup of tea no longer requires a kettle and a stove, he joked – just pour a cup of groundwater and light it with a match.

“What else can you do but joke?” Larson said, as he carried a poster board showing a map of cities across the region that have been polluted by BNSF. “We’re fighting such a powerhouse.”

Another joke passing through the protest grapevine is a recipe for the hottest new cocktail in North Idaho – an oilermaker. It calls for a mug of beer served with a shot of tap water.

BNSF returns to the courtroom Monday morning to argue that an Idaho state judge’s emergency closure order two months ago violated special protections granted to the railroad by federal interstate commerce laws. Short of an act of Congress, the depot will likely resume operations soon, predicted protest leader Aaron Hudlemeyer, a 28-year-old military veteran and business student at North Idaho College. Many protesters feel powerless in the face of the interstate commerce provisions, he said.

“Of course we have those feelings,” Hudlemeyer said. “People have a hard time believing they can make a difference. But the point is we’re doing the right thing. If not us, who? If not now, when? We just want to make it very clear to everybody that this community doesn’t want BNSF over the aquifer.”

State officials estimate only 2,000 to 3,000 gallons of diesel and motor oil have reached the aquifer – a relatively tiny amount, they say, considering the trillions of gallons of groundwater that flow below the depot. But Hudlemeyer said even a single drop of fuel is unacceptable to those who fought to prevent the railroad from building the high-speed refueling facility.

Three months after the depot opened in September, a crushed pipe was discovered to have been leaking fuel-tainted wastewater into the ground. In February, BNSF reported that fuel had leaked through an extensive series of cracks on the concrete refueling platform. A further investigation revealed faulty seals on portions of a plastic liner buried below the depot.

The railroad has repeatedly denied media requests to observe repairs at the site. Obtaining detailed information from the company has not been easy. When a BNSF spokesman returned a call from The Spokesman-Review two days after the most recent problems were discovered, he said he was too busy to answer questions about the trouble. “I’ve got to run,” the spokesman explained before ending the conversation. “I’ve got a derailment in Wyoming.”

A few days later, a Coeur d’Alene poet known only as the Bard of Sherman Avenue, posted a ditty on his Web site titled, “A Tip for PR Flacks.” The poem read: “When your tale / for facts they’re combing, have a train wreck / in Wyoming.”

Spokane musician and Gonzaga University instructor Bill Kostelec poured his frustrations into a song. There might not be an extensive musical tradition involving aquifer songs, but Kostelec said he didn’t have trouble finding inspiration from some of his favorite song writers, including John Prine and Woody Guthrie.

“This is just my way of responding to things,” he said. “Railroad songs are part of the American music tradition, that whole romantic railroad tradition. But man, this isn’t romantic, this is disgusting.”

The lyrics of Kostelec’s song, “The Rathdrum Prairie Refueling Depot Disaster” include the lines, “Now the plastic sheet is leaking and your poison’s sinking down / To foul our lifeblood treasure laying hidden beneath the ground.” Its ending is aimed at railroad executives and politicians: “Keep your oil out of my water, keep your poison from my well / If there’s any justice in this world you’ll drink diesel fuel in hell.”

The song has gotten some air time on KYRS-FM in Spokane, and Kostelec’s acoustic band, The Blue Ribbon Tea Company, has since been invited to perform the tune in Seattle over Memorial Day weekend at the Northwest Folklife Festival.

Hayden resident Cecilia Nolthenius is leading a petition drive against the depot. It might not be as creative as a song, but Nolthenius said she needed a way to focus her frustration. More than 3,000 signatures have been gathered.

“I cannot sit back,” she said Friday, after filling nine additional pages with names. “We have to make a little noise.”

Nolthenius has been active in North Idaho environmental causes for two decades. George Raines, a retired Spokane businessman who is sending a handwritten protest letter to BNSF Chairman Matt Rose, admitted that he has no history of environmental activism.

“Never,” Raines said. “I don’t protest anything. I’m not an activist. I’m a conservative Republican.”

Raines, 69, said he and his golf partners all plan to share their anger directly with railroad leaders. “I’m incensed,” he said. “This is the height of corporate irresponsibility. For someone to put the drinking water of this community at risk is totally inexcusable.”