A leak-proof fuel tank? No such thing

Leaking diesel taints drinking water on the Idaho-Washington line


HAUSER, Idaho — When the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Co. opened a massive refueling depot about 15 miles northwest of Coeur d’Alene last September, railroad brass and construction company presidents gathered to offer both tours and reassurance.

The $42 million depot, a quick-stop for transcontinental freights, holds a half-million gallons of diesel fuel, along with oil and other hazardous chemicals. And 160 feet of porous soil is all that separates it from an aquifer that provides drinking water for 500,000 people in Idaho and eastern Washington. The facility was built despite the opposition of thousands of local residents, who worried that leaks would contaminate their water supply.

"We designed a lot of special environmental protections to make this the best facility that’s ever been built," Mark Stehly, the railroad’s assistant vice president for environment, said in a video produced for the opening. Officials of the companies that designed and constructed the fuel depot made similar boasts. Some even promised that it would never leak.

But even as the officials were being filmed, below their boots the depot’s pipes were already leaking. Within six months, workers discovered several leaks. And those leaks have allowed a small amount of diesel-tinged wastewater to reach the aquifer.

Calling the depot "an unacceptable ... danger to the aquifer and the public," on Feb. 23, the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality convinced a state judge to shut it down at least until April with a temporary restraining order.

The discredited depot has become a lightning rod, drawing attention to the aquifer and to the need to protect it. And it casts doubt on industry promises that similar risky operations won’t leak.

A project with many flaws

The Spokane Valley-Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer, which holds 10 trillion gallons of water, is especially vulnerable to contamination because of its unusual geology. Its water flows from Lake Pend Oreille in Idaho to Spokane, Wash., moving up to 50 feet per day through coarse gravel. That makes it one of the swiftest-moving aquifers in the world, says Rachael Paschal Osborn, a Spokane attorney who represented environmental groups in a failed 2001 attempt to stop the depot’s construction. The rapid flow means "pollutants will get diluted," Osborn says. "But ... if there is a bad spill, it will be difficult to capture."

The region’s population has grown more than 20 percent since 1990, and new subdivisions and businesses are making increasing demands on the aquifer. In 2002, energy companies alarmed locals by proposing two new power plants that would have consumed large amounts of water (HCN, 4/15/02: Water threat inspires a rare alliance). The Idaho Department of Water Resources rejected the plants’ applications, and the federal government launched a $3.5 million study of the aquifer. But the study, which should be completed by 2007, focuses on the water’s quantity, not its quality.

Before the depot was built, state and local officials were concerned about the risk of pollution. They pressured the railroad to construct the facility with layers of leak protection: thick concrete pads under the fueling platform and storage tanks, and two layers of high-density polyethylene liners below them.

But both the design and construction appear to have been flawed. Wastewater pipes were single-walled plastic, laid right in the stony soil without liners protecting them. Three of those pipes were cracked during construction when heavy machinery drove over a trench, Idaho regulators believe.

The depot operated for three months, refueling up to 25 trains per day, before workers discovered the broken pipes. At least one pipe leaked diesel-tainted wastewater into the aquifer; the railroad hauled away many truckloads of polluted soil, and tests showed trace amounts of contaminants in the aquifer. Then, in mid-February, workers discovered more problems: The sealant on the fuel platform’s concrete pad had failed, and the upper liner below the pad had leaks where other pipes pierced it.

After the depot was shut down, the railroad assembled 80 engineers and drillers to saw through the concrete platform, then dig down to find and fix all the leaks. Soil samples taken from below the lower liner were dry, but they’ve been sent off for chemical testing.

Underground leaks seem inevitable

Most people expect the depot will reopen once the railroad repairs the pipes and liner. But the incident may catalyze statewide action. In February, Spokane’s daily paper, the Spokesman-Review, pointed out that about 40,000 gallons of oil and gasoline quietly leach into the aquifer each year from aging gas-station tanks and runoff from parking lots. Many hope that Idaho, the only state that doesn’t inspect underground fuel tanks for leaks, will be shamed into starting such inspections. And anyone who promises that a future industrial operation will be leak-proof will probably get laughed out of town.

Jim Kuipers, an engineer with the Montana-based Center for Science in Public Participation, assists grassroots groups and tribes with water pollution issues. He and David Chambers, the center’s director, point to many cases of leaking industrial liners, including the 1990 disaster at Colorado’s Summitville gold mine that killed all life in a 17-mile stretch of the Alamosa River (HCN, 9/29/03: Reweaving the river). "It’s just a matter of how much — some liners leak a little, and some leak a lot," Chambers says. "Poor construction is the main cause."

The only real guarantee that an operation with tanks, pipes and liners will never leak, Kuipers says, "is if you don’t build it at all."

The author writes from Spokane, Washington. Ray Ring, HCN’s editor in the field, contributed to this story.


Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Co., Mark Stehly, 817-352-1907

Idaho Department of Environmental Quality, Toni Hardesty, director, 208-373-0502

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