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

Depot blisters renew concern

Flaws have been discovered in a supposedly impermeable concrete coating at BNSF Railway’s depot atop the Spokane Valley/Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer.

There is no evidence of any train fuel leaking through the “blisters” in the coating and into the aquifer 160 feet below the site, according to the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality. But after a series of leaks were reported earlier this year at the depot – the railroad has blamed the problems on faulty design and sloppy construction – public tolerance for any additional flaws is running low, said Barry Rosenberg, executive director of the Coeur d’Alene-based Kootenai Environmental Alliance.

The blistered coating was discovered two weeks ago, but the news was not shared until late this week, Rosenberg said. “The public is very worried they’re not going to find out what’s happening at the depot, and this will just make them more suspicious,” he said.

BNSF says there is no reason for concern.

“This is not a leak. There is no impact on the aquifer,” spokesman Gus Melonas said. “It’s cosmetic. The matter is being corrected.”

The state of Idaho cautiously agreed with the railroad’s assessment. The blisters were found only in small areas at the fuel tank storage site and on a platform where workers can inspect the undersides of locomotives. The main fueling platform remains solidly sealed, said Marc Kalbaugh, of the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality.

“It’s obviously a concern,” said Kalbaugh, who has been inspecting the depot weekly to ensure that repairs promised by the railroad are being performed. “This is not a situation where we have a breach in containment or they’re contaminating the aquifer. This is an isolated incident. … It’s my impression that BNSF is taking the steps necessary to rectify and take care of the problem.”

The $42 million facility opened a year ago and is capable of refueling a locomotive in about 30 minutes, compared with up to six hours at BNSF’s congested yards near Seattle and Portland. But three months after the new depot opened, fuel-tainted wastewater was found to have been leaking unchecked into the ground below. In February, extensive cracks were found on the concrete refueling platform. An inspection then found holes in the plastic membranes buried below the depot.

Small amounts of diesel were detected in well water below the depot, but at levels that state officials say pose no risk to nearby residents, or to more than 400,000 other people who depend on the aquifer for their water. But the problems prompted the state to obtain an emergency court order to temporarily close the depot until repairs were made.

The facility reopened in May after the railroad spent $10 million on repairs, including five layers of rubberized coating atop 80,000 square feet of concrete at the site. The railroad is now suing the design firm and the Spokane-based general contractor, Lydig Construction.

The coating is capable of expanding to three times its normal size without cracking. During court proceedings in April, a BNSF executive claimed the sealant boosted the platform’s impermeability “a thousand percent, easy.”

The blisters in the coating were found only in areas exposed to direct sunlight, Kalbaugh said. Repairs are already being made. Soil tests were conducted below the locations of the blisters, and there were no elevated levels of petroleum found, Kalbaugh said.

“There’s not a whole lot of alarm bells going off here,” he said.

Rosenberg said the flaws – albeit minor – only cement the views of thousands of depot opponents who want the facility moved off the aquifer. Rosenberg went on to call the depot “a miserable failure.”

Another depot critic, Post Falls mayor Clay Larkin, said both the state and the railroad need to be up front about any problems at the depot, no matter how small.

“There needs to be a system in place where the public is notified by BNSF or the DEQ as soon as problems arise,” Larkin said in a prepared statement. “One of our greatest fears is that there will be a cover-up – this incident reinforces our concern.”

News of the blisters was included in a progress report on depot repairs sent earlier this week to Kootenai County commissioners by the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality.