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Board advises people to stop eating whitefish caught downstream of train derailment

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Crews clean up asphalt on the banks of the Yellowstone River on July 20, 2023, after a train derailment sent hundreds of thousands of pounds of liquid asphalt into the river on June 24. PHOTO VIA U.S. ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY


Montana’s Fish Consumption Advisory Board issued an initial advisory Friday that people should stop consuming mountain whitefish caught between the site of a train derailment and chemical spill last month and Laurel after chemicals were found in several of the fish that were tested.

It’s unclear if the train derailment and spill is what led to the chemical phenanthrene being found in the whitefish in the area, according to a joint news release from the Department of Public Health and Environment, Fish Wildlife and Parks, and the Department of Environmental Quality.

Staff for the agencies are performing further testing this week on a variety of fish in the area, and the news release said if people are concerned, they should stop eating any fish caught in the area until more is known about the possible contamination.

The initial testing was done on five mountain whitefish and five rainbow trout of different sizes taken below the site of the June 24 derailment, the agencies said. While the trout showed no signs of contamination, the whitefish had enough of the chemical to meet the standards for the consumption advisory, which could be updated by the consumption advisory board.

It is currently unclear exactly how the chemical got into the whitefish. The agencies said phenanthrene is part of a group of hydrocarbons that can at times occur naturally, including in shale rock found in the Yellowstone River basin. But they are also found in oil, gas, plastics and pesticides and can be damaging to human and animal health.

FWP’s next round of testing will include more whitefish and rainbow trout, brown trout, shorthead redhorse, longnose suckers and white suckers when they can be located. The testing will occur both above and below the Two Bridges Road bridge where the derailment occurred, the agencies said, and the information will be released publicly.

The derailment spilled thousands of pounds of liquid asphalt and molten sulfur into the river from 10 cars in late June. So far, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, crews have collected more than 231,000 pounds of asphalt from the river and its banks.

The latest report from the multiagency team working on the cleanup response was Aug. 2, which said eight snakes and 11 birds had died after encountering the asphalt. FWP reopened the stretch of the river a mile upstream of the bridge to 2 ½ miles downstream on July 29.

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