The railroad corporation BNSF, which operates a controversial refueling station in Hauser, over the Rathdrum Prairie aquifer, has taken Kootenai County to court over tighter aquifer protection measures. The County wants to make the new measures part of a permit renewal for the facility. After agreeing to a set of conditions in its original negotiated permit some ten years ago, BNSF is now opposed to any new conditions and is claiming that the County has no jurisdiction at all over railroad operations.
The refueling station sits above the sole source of drinking water for more than 500,000 people — including most of the population in the Coeur d’Alene / Spokane corridor. Local residents will recall that shortly after opening in 2004, the refueling station began to leak. A state judge had to shut the facility down for 74 days while repairs were made to a cracked platform and crushed pipes. As a result of the leak, BNSF pumped nearly 2000 gallons of leaked fuel from the aquifer. BNSF blamed shoddy construction, and it claims the facility has been leak-free ever since.
As part of its current permit, BNSF has been responsible for funding a monitoring program with Idaho DEQ. The monitoring program was scheduled to sunset after 10 years, but as part of the permit renewal, Kootenai County wants to make the monitoring permanent. However, BNSF no longer wants to pay for monitoring.
Also as part of the permit renewal, Kootenai County is calling for a new groundwater monitoring plan with new wells and new procedures. As perhaps the biggest sticking point, Kootenai County wants to amend conditions in the permit so that there could be a quicker shutdown of the refueling station in the event of a leak. A quicker shutdown could mean quicker repairs — hopefully before the leak could make its way to the aquifer.
Taking a hard-line stance in court filings, BNSF argues that railroads are regulated only by the federal government, and local regulations are therefore not applicable. The corporation says that it only voluntarily agreed to the earlier regulations, and that the company no longer wishes to abide by the county’s requirements.
Any courtroom drama may be averted, however, if ongoing negotiations between the parties bear fruit. The company recently sponsored a tour of the facility, and County recently hosted a “workshop” for the parties to explore room for settlement. To our knowledge, those discussions are ongoing.
Even though it never should have been permitted over the aquifer in the first place, Kootenai County deserves a lot of credit for standing up to this facility’s legal intimidation tactics. In the negotiations, we hope the county will stick by its guns and insist on the relatively inexpensive additional protections proposed for our critical aquifer. We also hope BNSF will reconsider their opposition to these common sense aquifer protections.
And, in a world so filled with worst-case-scenarios lately, we continue to hope that, someday, BNSF will just move the facility somewhere else less risky.