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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Oil cleanup agreement opens path to North Spokane freeway through Hillyard

A drilling crew drives monitoring wells in the former location of the BNSF Railway "black tank", a large storage and refueling depot southeast of downtown Hillyard in North Spokane, shown Wednesday, April 6, 2016. The tank was removed several years ago, but the spills of fuel oil have created a plume of petroleum pollution on the aquifer water table which is being monitored and cleaned up. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

A big road block in the path of a new North Spokane freeway may be coming down under an agreement announced this week.

A major oil spill from historic rail operations in Hillyard has threatened to force a redesign of the freeway’s preferred path in the vicinity of Wellesley Avenue.

The state departments of Transportation and Ecology have agreed to a preliminary plan that would allow for cleanup of the oil at the same time the state moves ahead with design and construction on its original plan.

The agreement is with BNSF Railway and Marathon Oil, the responsible parties under cleanup laws.

DOT will be able to save at least $10 million by not rerouting the freeway, which would require several bridges to avoid the contaminated site on BNSF land. The oil has extended into land needed for the freeway.

“We are all thrilled,” said David Griswold, a Hillyard community leader who has been following the issue for years.

He said that rerouting the freeway would have resulted in an elevated segment through Hillyard and across Wellesley Avenue, making the area less desirable for the neighborhood’s long-sought urban revival.

A redesign would have resulted in a freeway at least 30 feet above ground, neighborhood leaders said.

Members of the community fought to retain the lower profile for the freeway along with a trail and walking park on the eastern edge of the Hillyard business district.

“It’s a win-win for everybody, but mostly for the community,” said Courtney Wallace, a spokeswoman for BNSF Railway.

The proposed remediation still has a number of hurdles to clear, including at least two rounds of public comment. Cleanup may not fully begin until late 2018.

Wallace said the railroad will be allowed to use a bioremediation method in which air circulates into the ground from wells to stimulate bacteria to chew up the oil. The oil is 170 feet below ground, resting on top of the region’s aquifer – the city’s source of drinking water.

The heavy bunker-C and diesel oil is slowly migrating away from the site and is not threatening wells currently.

State officials said they will allow the railroad and its cleanup partner, Marathon Oil, to have up to five years to show that the method works. For the companies, success pumping air into the ground is less expensive than extraction of the contaminated soil.

The state Department of Ecology “absolutely hopes it is successful. We are cautiously optimistic,” said Jeremy Schmidt, DOE’s site manager on the cleanup.

“We think we’ve hit a real success,” Schmidt said.

DOT is expected to shift the freeway about 15 feet to the west to leave more room for oil remediation work.

Griswold said that diagonal wells may be used to get at all of the contamination.

The site is known as the Black Tank Property for the large refueling tank that sat there until removed by BNSF about 11 years ago. The main contamination is east of the freeway route, Schmidt said.

If the bioremediation does not work, BNSF and Marathon oil would need to find another approach that could involve extraction.

The agreement lays the foundation for pilot tests that will allow for final cleanup decisions based on performance, officials said.

Under the preliminary agreement, the railroad would grant access easements for freeway construction.

The railroad also plans to remove as much as 15 feet of material at the surface that may be contaminated.

The preliminary agreement allows DOT to remain on schedule with the tight timeline established for funding the freeway by the Legislature in 2015.

Up to $879 million was carved out of the Connecting Washington funding and tax plan for completing what’s formally called the North Spokane Corridor from Francis Avenue to Interstate 90.

Mike Gribner, regional administrator for DOT, said in a news release that “our team can now concentrate on the design and construction needed to complete this long-awaited facility.”

DOT will avoid liability in the larger cleanup but has committed to some cost sharing with the railroad and Marathon Oil in the proposed agreement, officials said.

Details were still to be worked out.

Spokane City Councilwoman Amber Waldref, who represents the Hillyard area, said, “We can clean up the site and protect the aquifer within a reasonable time frame.”

She said BNSF had wanted a longer time frame to allow its preferred aeration methods to succeed, but there were concerns the approach might take more than 20 years. As a result, ecology officials sought language that would force additional cleanup methods if bioremediation is not as effective as hoped.

Ecology wanted the cleanup done in 20 years, she said.

“I am very pleased with the outcome for our community, the city and the neighborhood,” Waldref said.