by Ted S. McGregor Jr. & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & A & lt;/span & n earthquake of a 7 magnitude or higher is not to be taken lightly. If one were to hit somewhere in the Inland Northwest, it could be devastating, with structures collapsing under once-solid ground that had turned into Jell-O. Hundreds -- even thousands -- could die.

It's almost too much to think about -- so much, in fact, that we don't think about it much around here. Spokane, we seem to believe, is safe from earthquakes.

Maybe, but predicting earthquakes is one skill that continues to elude science. It is true, however, that the Inland Northwest is sandwiched between two of the most geologically active places on the planet. The Pacific Coast is highly unstable, with a massive subduction occurring in 1700 and the largest recorded earthquake (9.2 on the Richter scale) ever in the United States happening in Alaska in 1964.

To the east of us, you find Yellowstone country, which has been identified by geologists as an active caldera -- kind of a super-volcano just under the surface. Krakatoa was a caldera.

The biggest quake ever in Washington state was an estimated 7.4 that hit not along the coast, but near Chelan in 1872. The biggest ever to hit Montana was a 7.3 that shook Hebgen Lake in 1959. If those sound remote, consider that there have also been significant quakes in Walla Walla in 1936; in Sandpoint in 1942; in Wallace in 1957; and a series of smaller quakes have been jabbing at Spokane over the past six years.

So if we were to be hit, we probably shouldn't be surprised. It would be an act of God -- a serious setback, but like other cities hit, Spokane and other towns in the Inland Northwest could rebuild.

But in the days to follow such an event, one particularly devastating piece of news could roll in from Rathdrum, where hundreds of thousands of gallons of diesel fuel have been stored. The tanks might crack like eggs, the protective cement beneath might buckle, and all that fuel would be free to seep into the ground and then the aquifer -- the region's fresh water supply. The science hasn't been done to tell us the certain impact of such an event, but the worst-case scenario is that we will have poisoned our common well.

An act of God can be compounded by an act of human stupidity.

& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & T & lt;/span & his is the message a couple of North Idaho old-timers are trying to get people to hear: Jules Gindraux and Jim Rowe don't care that the facility is already up and running, or that both Idaho and Kootenai County have welcomed it. They say it's never too late to fix a mistake -- especially one this big.

"I'm not an eco-freak," Rowe told me last week, his bolo tie and showy belt buckle backing up his Western credentials. "I'm not anti-industry -- I'm anti-irresponsibility."

"We've been blessed with the biggest and best aquifer," added Gindraux. "What will our economy look like once we've destroyed it?"

These guys are like our conscience talking, and we should listen. Gindraux first saw Priest Lake in 1933, while a student at Lewis and Clark High School. After two tours over North Africa as a World War II pilot, he helped launch Lebanon's national airline. He lived around the world after that, but settled back in Priest Lake when he retired in the 1970s. He organized blockades with pickup trucks to keep dam builders out of Priest Lake, later helping found the organization that would become the Selkirk Conservation Alliance. He turned 88 on Sunday.

Rowe first encountered the power of an earthquake on Aug. 17, 1959, when he was building roads in Montana. He was on the crew that, overnight, punched a brand-new road into the area hit by the Hebgen Lake quake, helping rescue nearly 60 people trapped when 80 million tons of rock and debris fell off the side of a mountain. Another 28 people weren't so lucky, and Rowe saw the carnage up close. He learned geology as an apprentice for the Anaconda Company in Butte. Rowe, now 69, also developed a healthy respect for the nastiest chemicals ever concocted at the Borden plant in Missoula, where they made formaldehyde.

Rowe and Gindraux recognize the need to move goods around the country, and railroads like the Burlington-Northern Santa Fe, which built and operates the refueling depot near Rathdrum, are an important part of the nation's economic picture. So they have a simple, albeit expensive, solution, and it, too, relies on the very thing they believe threatens the current facility: geology.

They say relocating the refueling depot atop solid basalt, not drinking water, would be the responsible choice. (While they're at it, we should consider relocating the many smaller fuel tanks scattered around Spokane, too.) Basalt, like a layer of cement, lies just under the soil of much of the Inland Northwest. Of course, this would cost several millions, so it would take a lot of political will to make it happen. They know it's a long shot, so they're comparing the situation to everything from Hurricane Katrina to bird flu -- anything to make an impression.

"It's almost impossible to get people to pay attention," says Rowe, "unless you scare the bejesus out of them."

& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & S & lt;/span & o is it hysterical? Yes. But is it irrational? No. Irrational is smoking while you pump gas. Or spending millions on levees that can't withstand a big storm. Or storing poison on top of your drinking supply.

Another thing that's irrational is letting "Anything Goes" Idaho decide the future of the entire Inland Northwest. We need a more coherent decision-making process that reflects the reality that our environmental issues transcend the state line. But even in Idaho, there is an uprising of feelings that the state and Kootenai County need to plan better. The Kootenai Environmental Alliance collected more than 7,500 anti-refueling depot signatures, and just last month, two of the Kootenai County commissioners who presided over the depot decision were fired by voters.

Nobody can predict whether an earthquake will hit, but completely ignoring the possibility is no proper response to the threat.

"I still believe in rational thought," Rowe told me at the end of our meeting, reflecting a lifetime of hard-earned wisdom. "And that may be the most irrational thought I've had.

"But," he added, "I keep hoping."

Book-Talk Teasers

Wed., Aug. 4, 1-2 p.m. and Wed., Aug. 18, 1-2 p.m.
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