County proposes BNSF conditions

Railroad stalled previous proposals with lawsuit

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COEUR d'ALENE - Kootenai County is attempting again to improve safety conditions at a train refueling station above the region's drinking water source.

The county commissioners are proposing new amendments to the permit conditions for Burlington-Northern Santa Fe Railroad's refueling depot in Hauser, after previous proposals were stalled by a lawsuit from the railroad.

There is always the possibility of diesel or another contaminant leaking from the facility, said Commissioner Todd Tondee, a risk for the underlying Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer.

"The water source is very important to us and we want to make sure it's protected," Tondee said.

The proposed amendments are similar to those the county pursued late last year.

Under the modified conditions, the railroad would have to notify the Department of Environmental Quality within 24 hours in the event of a leak, and respond immediately by preventing any further release outside containment areas.

The depot would cease operations if a state or federal agency discovered facility-caused contaminants in the aquifer. The station could reopen when the source was determined, and necessary remediation begun.

The amendments would also have the railroad fund an additional staff person for the Department of Environmental Quality's aquifer protection program, every year for as long as the facility is in operation.

And the railroad would have to develop a groundwater-monitoring plan approved by the DEQ. Slant wells would be checked annually.

Commissioner Dan Green said he toured the 500,000-gallon refueling station last year.

He was impressed with the equipment, the staff's professionalism and their efforts to protect water quality, he said.

But he pointed out that thousands of trains are serviced at the depot each year.

"I'm always concerned when there's millions of gallons of fuel and potential contamination to our sole source aquifer," Green said.

The county had looked into adding new regulations to the station after its compliance review in 2009.

But when the commissioners proposed amendments last November, BNSF responded with a lawsuit stating that the county has no authority to impose permitting conditions.

The suit also argued that the compliance review showed no need for changes.

The railroad has since been negotiating with the county on the issue, said BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas.

The company has agreed to the newly proposed amendments, he said.

"We have worked with the county on modifications which, if adopted as proposed, will do away with any need for litigation," Melonas said.

A county examiner will hold a hearing on the permit amendments at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 1 in Room 1 of the county Administration Building.

The commissioners will hold a hearing and deliberate at a later date.

From the refueling station's opening in September 2004 through June of this year, the facility has serviced 70,193 trains.

About 25 trains come through each day, Melonas said.

Shortly after the facility opened in 2004, a leak was discovered that extended to the aquifer. The facility was also shut down by the DEQ in 2005 when diesel was discovered on a protective liner.

BNSF spokespeople have said that those events were followed with thorough investigations and a $10 million investment to rebuild the facility's protective barriers.

Green believes a resolution could be in store.

"I'm hoping these hearings coming up will resolve pending litigation," he said.

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