Posts Tagged ‘BNSF’

“Spitting in the face of the physical laws of the universe is a fool’s game. Mother Nature does not do bailouts, nor does she forgive stupidity.”

Jules Gindraux, a longtime aquifer advocate, had a wonderful letter to the Coeur d’Alene Press recently regarding the BNSF refueling depot. The BNSF facility goes before a Kootenai County hearing examiner this evening for renewal of their conditional permit for operations.

Jules points out the sad inevitability of the disaster waiting to happen as the BNSF facility refuels dozens of trains with thousands of gallons of fuel directly above the sole source of drinking water for more than a half million people. It is not really a matter of whether such a facility will fail, it is only a matter of when. As Jules puts it, “Every day that passes brings us closer to the ‘mean-time-to-failure.’” Of course, this facility has already failed once.

Unfortunately, BNSF has an approval from the county that should never have been given. Now, in an effort to make a bad situation less bad, and a potential disaster perhaps less catastrophic, the county has been trying to build into the permit renewal new aquifer protection conditions, spill prevention mechanisms and better accountability. However, BNSF, by running to the courthouse and filing a lawsuit, has been successful so far in limiting any significant impact to its operations or bottom line. For example, BNSF continues to refuse a condition on the facility that would require the facility to be shut down automatically in the case of a leak. Instead, BNSF says they will wait for Idaho DEQ or some other government agency to order them shut down.

Unfortunately, the threat is likely to be much worse than anyone may have ever imagined during the original approvals. An enormous amount of coal from the Powder River basin in Wyoming and Montana is being proposed for export to India and China via controversial port facilities in western Washington. All of that coal will travel by train through our region. This is likely to double rail traffic with exceedingly long and exceedingly heavy trains.

The probabilities for disaster, however remote on any given day, are doubling. And the odds are worsening with every rumbling train over the thin protective liners that separate the aquifer from BNSF’s supply of diesel fuel.

As Jules explains colorfully:

When the disaster occurs, we will hear the universal excuse: We Never Saw It Coming. A subsequent investigation will show that Mistakes Were Made. But of course the guilty parties will not be held accountable. The universal mea culpa will state It’s a Wakeup Call, and as that phrase dies on the wind, our politicians and the money powers will return to kissing Aaron’s Golden Calf on the arse.

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BNSF and Kootenai County appear to have resolved differences over conditions of operation at the poorly located railroad refueling station over the Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer near Hauser. Recall that BNSF objected to tougher new conditions the County proposed last year, and ran immediately to the courthouse. Now, scheduled for a hearing before a hearing examiner September 1st, are a new set of conditions that BNSF appears to have agreed to.

Some changes in the new conditions were minor. For example, the County had originally asked that BNSF finance a position at DEQ for aquifer protection for as long as the facility is in operation. Now, under the revised conditions, BNSF would continue to provide funding for a DEQ staff position for a period of 10 years, but after 10 years, BNSF would continue funding at a level of $100,000 per year as long as the facility is in operation.

The main change between what was proposed last year and what will go to the hearing examiner this year appears to govern what happens when something goes horribly wrong. Originally the County had insisted that if a potential petroleum leak had penetrated two of the three layers of containment protection, the facility would need to cease operations immediately, and they could not resume until they were cleared to operate by DEQ.

Now, however, the proposed condition is much more lenient. The new proposed condition states that, for any release outside all of the containment areas:

the initial response to any release of petroleum products shall include immediate action to prevent further release of petroleum outside the containment areas, which may include ceasing operations at the facility in whole or in part, if so directed by DEQ … until the release has been stopped, at which point operations may be resumed.

In other words, BNSF does not stop operating until the leak has passed through all the layers of protection. Indeed, it still doesn’t stop operating until an agency shuts them down. And BNSF starts right back up once the leak is stopped, regardless of any cleanup that might be necessary.

Basically, we’re deeply concerned that this condition is far too loose to be fully preventative. We’ve only got one sole-source drinking water supply. We need to be much more protective than these new operating conditions would allow for this facility.




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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.


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