by Kevin Taylor

We can make it better, stronger, more leakproof. We have the technology. It seems almost mad to think that scientists could build a bionic man for $6 million when Burlington Northern Santa Fe spent seven times that much to construct what is essentially a giant Kwik-Stop for its freight trains.

And now, only half a year after it opened, the railroad is spending millions more to rebuild the Hauser Mainline Refueling Depot from the ground downward. They'll be addressing cracks, leaks and other failures in systems meant to protect a major source of the region's drinking water from contaminated wastewater and diesel fuel stored on the site.

Amazing how quickly you need upgrades these days.

Nobody's talking about who screwed up, or, given the scale of the redesign -- pulling all the fuel delivery, wastewater and leak detection pipes that pierced the plastic spill barriers; resealing concrete that failed within months of being poured; adding significantly more leak-detection systems -- why the depot wasn't built this way in the first place.

"I don't know if there was any one mistake. There certainly was a series of problems that got us where we are," says Rand Wichman, Kootenai County's planning director. Speaking about the faulty seals in the liners and the cracked concrete, Wichman adds, "I don't know if I'd call it careless construction, but it certainly doesn't reflect the degree of care we would expect or that Burlington Northern expected. They are not happy with that."

Gus Melonas, director of public affairs for BNSF says, "I can't comment on that. We are continuing to investigate."

Calls to the engineering firm that designed the depot, Hanson Wilson, were not returned; neither were calls to Spokane's Lydig Construction, which built it.

Triple Failure?

Like boys gathered around some giant bug -- or like scientists gathered around Steve Austin -- inspectors and engineers have spent all month digging and poking at the underbelly of the BNSF depot and its three layers of spill protection.

The month-long deconstruction is largely about "checking the integrity of the third containment layer," Idaho state regulators and railroad officials have said.

The integrity of that final barrier between diesel and drinking water, about 1/17th of an inch of high-density polyethylene, became sharply more suspect last week when traces of methylnapthalene, a petroleum-based compound, was found twice in the groundwater in new test wells drilled this month.

The compound was just above detection levels and below the levels considered a health threat, says Marc Kalbaugh, the inspector for the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality.

"We drilled several wells as part of this investigation [including] one at each end of the platform and one in the middle. In the middle, there were two minor detections of methylnapthalene," Kalbaugh says.

It's too early to conclude the contaminant came from the refueling platform directly above it, say Kalbaugh and others familiar with the movement of contamination in soils and groundwater. More test wells will be drilled, more water and soil samples taken. The railroad, Kalbaugh and Melonas say, continues to test the for leaks in the third containment layer by flooding it with helium from below and water from above.

The new pollution was found upstream from a series of cracked wastewater pipes that had leaked an estimated 200,000 gallons of diesel-tinged wastewater into the aquifer from the day the depot opened in September until the leaks were discovered in early December. The pipes are believed to have been cracked soon after installation when heavy machinery drove over the trench.

Other test wells upstream from the recently discovered contaminant have not shown traces of petroleum products, centering suspicion on the fueling platform itself.

"There is a lot of information to be gathered," Kalbaugh says.

Control of the Depot

The news has Kootenai County Commissioners researching the fine print of their 33-point conditional use permit regulating the operation of the fueling depot.

Conditions 7.10 and 7.05 "deal with what the county can do if [fuel] has breached the third containment layer like we think it has," says Kootenai County Commission Chairman Gus Johnson, adding that it could result "in a cease and desist order."

Condition 7.10 "basically says if we discover something in the aquifer, they have to cease operations until we figure out where it's coming from and something is done to stop it," says Planning Director Wichman.

Condition 7.05 insists BNSF prove it has three intact layers of spill protection. "We don't believe they can operate without three layers. This speaks to the liners and the cracks in the concrete," Wichman adds.

Still, after it became clear in early February that two of the containment layers had been breached, the railroad resisted county demands to shut down, and the question of local control over a transcontinental railroad is a troubling one.

"That's one of the basic questions we have to deal with: what the limits to our authority are," says Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden.

In a Feb. 17 letter to commissioners, Mark Stehly, BNSF's assistant vice president for environment, wrote that the railroad "has elected to continue operations" and that "Continued operations do not endanger the environment." Stehly's letter outlined several steps the railroad was taking to operate while the leaks in the two upper containment layers were being fixed.

''Lie'' wrote someone in the margin next to one of those paragraphs in the copy of the letter obtained by The Inlander.

The depot was shut down by court order on Feb. 23. Idaho DEQ argued leaks at the depot posed an "unacceptable risk of danger to the aquifer and to the public," winning a temporary restraining order from Kootenai County First District Court Judge Charles Hosack.

The restraining order is to be revisited April 5, when the railroad hopes to show it has repaired all the leaks and has passed inspection by DEQ.

But the county may play a role after that.

Johnson says the commissioners have been inundated with "letters and phone calls demanding we shut 'em down and move 'em." But when it comes to the odds of permanently shutting down the Hauser depot, "I don't want to say it's nil -- but it would probably take an act of Congress," he says.

"It was really shoddy"

Barry Rosenberg, director of the Kootenai Environmental Alliance, is among a chorus of observers who doesn't expect the county to have much clout. After all, Rosenberg says, the county will be relying on inspection reports from DEQ and the railroad to determine if the depot passes muster, just as it did when the facility first opened.

After viewing inspection photographs of cracks in the concrete fueling platform and faulty installation of "boots" meant to seal the gaps where pipes go through the plastic liners, Rosenberg says, "I was shocked. It was really shoddy."

And it raises an issue beyond flawed design or construction. "Where was the oversight by the state and by BN? How did this thing get so out of control?" he wonders.

KEA has asked the county to hire independent inspectors to review the repair work and the integrity of the leak-prevention and detection systems.

Wichman says the county will still rely on reports from the state and the railroad: "We believe there are enough people with enough expertise."

"It's a case of inexperience -- I hate to say 'ignorance,"' says Ron Johnson, a Kootenai County resident and engineer with decades of experience in hazardous materials removal and bio-remediation, including work at nuclear power plants. "DEQ had a responsibility to know what was going on or to hire someone who did.

Ken Lustig, retired environmental health director for North Idaho's Panhandle Health District, remembers a conversation with a DEQ inspector after the depot was approved five years ago.

"He said, 'We will review this as we would any gas station,' " Lustig recalls. "This is not any gas station. This needs to be seen for what it is and not be treated as a routine regulatory exercise."

The Panhandle Health District opposed the Hauser site for the refueling depot, noting the threat it posed to the aquifer and the region's drinking water. He suspects the depot will never be moved or shut down, and says the aftermath provides a clear lesson for local governments.

"If there's an avoidable risk, avoid it."

Publication date: 03/24/05

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About The Author

Kevin Taylor

Kevin Taylor is a staff writer for The Inlander. He has covered politics, the environment, police and the tribes, among many other things.