By Matt Nykiel
They say never let a fox guard the hen house, but that’s how Idaho operates when it comes to railroad safety. Sandpoint should take this into careful consideration as BNSF Railway pushes for a new bridge over Lake Pend Oreille.
Last year, BNSF announced plans for the second bridge. The national agencies charged with permitting the rail bridge continue to review the proposal, after receiving well over 2,000 comments from people concerned about BNSF transporting hazardous substances through rural communities like Sandpoint.
It’s unclear whether the benefits of the new bridge are worth the risk associated with train derailments and oil spills. It is clear that local and state officials can do more to protect our community, even now.
Clean water is key to Sandpoint’s economy, way of life and drinking water. These days, you can’t beat a wintery walk on the Bay Trail overlooking our serene lake. Unfortunately, a single train derailment could change all of that.
Just last June, a BNSF train derailed near Doon, Iowa, spilling 160,000 gallons of crude oil into the Rock River. Another train, this one owned by Union Pacific, derailed this September near Alton, Iowa, spilling sand and soybean oil into the Floyd River. Despite these risks, BNSF refuses to advocate for the highest level of environmental review of the second bridge proposal, even though locals, including the city of Sandpoint, have requested an Environmental Impact Statement.
An EIS is a good starting point, but there’s more our community can do to safeguard our water. The state of Idaho does not employ a single track inspector to ensure the rail lines are safe. This is a problem, given that rail track condition is the primary factor in many derailments.
The Idaho Public Utilities Commission is charged with overseeing train safety throughout the state. The PUC does employ two hazardous materials inspectors, but it does not have the funding to support any track inspectors. It’s always better to prevent a derailment than to clean up after one. But that is not how Idaho chooses to invest its resources.
The Federal Rail Administration dedicates just one track inspector to northern Idaho, but this inspector is spread thin, covering eastern Washington and western Montana as well. BNSF employs its own track inspectors, but the people of Idaho deserve public oversight of track inspection.
Sandpoint and other rail-line communities should also demand that BNSF demonstrate it can contain a spill of hazardous substances any day of the year. This includes during the rigors of winter or when the water is moving fast, during spring runoff.
During runoff, the Clark Fork River upstream from Lake Pend Oreille can flow around seven feet per second. In recent spill response exercises, it’s taken BNSF around two hours to deploy containment boom — in perfect conditions — with responders on site. At that rate, hazardous substances from a derailment would have traveled nearly ten miles in two hours. Although BNSF should be commended for recently adding spill response resources to our community, it’s cold comfort if BNSF cannot deploy them effectively.
State experts estimate the amount of coal and oil hauled by rail could more than double by 2040. Much of that will be right here in Bonner County. So our state regulators and BNSF should redouble their effort to prevent derailments in the first place and to contain them if they occur.
Ask your elected official: Why don’t we have a state railroad track inspector in Idaho? And, how do you know BNSF is capable of containing an oil spill during spring runoff?
To paraphrase President Reagan: trust but verify. The railroad is an important part of the national economy, but that should not steamroll legitimate local concerns about protecting our communities and our clean water.
Matt Nykiel advocates for clean water on behalf of the Idaho Conservation League.
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