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Dive team to assess derailed train cars in Yellowstone River before removal

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A Montana Rail Link train derailed on Twin Bridge east of Reed Point on the morning of Saturday, June 24, 2023. PHOTO COURTESY OF MONTANA FWP

Adjacent bridge was disassembled in 2021 due to structural concerns

By Blair Miller DAILY MONTANAN

A dive team and large crane will assess the condition of the 10 rail cars in the Yellowstone River east of Reed Point to try to remove them after Saturday morning’s derailment and bridge collapse.

The Montana Rail Link 55-car train derailed around 6 a.m. about five miles east of Reed Point in Stillwater County after the bridge underneath it collapsed, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said on its website for the event.

Until two years ago, the bridge had been adjacent to a road bridge that was disassembled after structural concerns were found during a 2019 inspection.

According to a Monday afternoon release from a Unified Command of Stillwater County Disaster and Emergency Services, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, the EPA, and Montana Rail Link, 10 cars ended up in the river when the bridge collapsed.

Three of the cars were carrying molten sulfur, six carried asphalt – both of which are materials that solidify rapidly under cooler temperatures, officials said – while another contained scrap metal. Two of them remain submerged in the river, and the dive team will shed light on the situation officials said is a “key unknown” when it comes their removal.

The Unified Command said Monday that two cars containing sodium hydrosulfide that derailed on the west side of the bridge but did not fall into the water had their contents transferred into other rail cars and transported away.

Eight other rail cars on the eastern side of the bridge also derailed – five of which contained asphalt and three that contained fertilizer. The three containing fertilizer and one containing asphalt were also removed Monday, leaving four more cars on the east side of the bridge that will also be moved in coming days, officials said.

The Unified Command said the dive team was brought in to look at the cars under the water’s surface, and that contractors and a crane were brought in to stabilize and remove the cars from the river.

A Montana Rail Link contractor is performing water quality sampling for asphalt, sulfur and other materials with oversight from the Montana Department of Environmental Quality and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Globs of asphalt have been found downstream in and on the banks of the river, but officials said they were not likely to affect water quality and had not detected any risks so far.

“The solid waste is not water soluble and is not anticipated to impact water quality. Water quality testing results from Saturday show no detectable levels of petroleum hydrocarbons or sulfur and samples continue to be taken and analyzed,” the release from Unified Command said. “At this time, there are no known risks to public drinking water or private drinking water wells.”

A fiber line that ran across the tracks was also damaged in the derailment and bridge collapse that was still causing some phone issues statewide on Monday afternoon, but telecommunications were working on fixing the issue, officials said.

A spokesperson for the National Transportation Safety Board said the Federal Railroad Administration was leading the investigation into the derailment and bridge collapse and that the NTSB was assisting the investigation.

Dan Griffin, a spokesperson for the Federal Railroad Administration, said investigators arrived Saturday afternoon to analyze the cause of the derailment, while the EPA is monitoring potential impacts on air quality, soil and water.

“FRA will continue to work with the EPA, local officials, and Montana Rail Link on the ground and remain in communication with NTSB as part of this ongoing investigation,” Griffin said in a statement.

A spokesperson for MRL directed the Daily Montanan to the Unified Command’s afternoon brief when reached for information on the incident and prior inspections.

The Billings Gazette reported the company’s president said the trestle was inspected in May, and the rail line was scanned for potential flaws sometime in the past two months. He said he expected a “lengthy outage” for the oft-used route.

In 2021, the state closed the section of the river after investigations found the Twin Bridges vehicle bridge adjacent to the rail bridge, which was built in 1931, had structural damage because of scour and rust, which led to the disassembling of the bridge in April of that year. A 2019 MDT fracture critical inspection report found there were issues with the substructure, superstructure and deck of the vehicle bridge.

U.S. Department of Transportation data from 2022 found that of Montana’s 4,478 bridges not controlled by the federal government, 64% were in fair condition, 29% were in good condition, and 6% were in poor condition. In Stillwater County, out of 90 bridges, 74% were in fair condition, 24% were in good condition, and one bridge was in poor condition.

Montana Rail Link is working with BNSF Railway Co. and its unions to find alternative routes for other trains “to limit supply chain disruptions,” the Unified Command said.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks closed several sections of the river and nearby fishing sites over the weekend following the crash. Sections of the river below the Indian Fort access site were still closed Monday afternoon. FWP spokesperson Greg Lemon said the department was “still in assessment mode” on Monday afternoon.

Gov. Greg Gianforte toured the derailment and received a briefing on Sunday from Stillwater County Fire and MRL. The rail company will assume all the costs of cleanup, recovery and rebuilding the bridge, the Governor’s Office said.

“Folks in Stillwater County have been working around-the-clock to keep Montanans safe, ensure the safety and quality of our water supply, and protect the treasured natural resource we have in the Yellowstone River,” Gianforte said in a statement. “We’ll continue to do our part to support the response of Montana Rail Link and county officials as they assess their ongoing needs.”

Montana’s congressional delegation also responded.

U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, a Republican, said he had spoken with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg about the crash and hoped the Department of Transportation would conduct “a swift and thorough investigation.”

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat, wrote to Buttigieg and the administrators of the EPA and FEMA asking them to work with local and state governments and saying he appreciated their prompt responses.

Republican U.S. Rep. Matt Rosendale also thanked the same group for their quick response and posed questions about the cause of the bridge collapse, supply chain disruptions and a timeline for the bridge’s repair and cleanup of the spill.

Stillwater County and MRL said Sunday evening they were grateful for the support.

“We are appreciative of Governor Gianforte and the First Lady’s visit to the site this afternoon, along with the messages received from members of Montana’s Congressional Delegation,” they said.

The Unified Command group plans to host a Zoom news conference at 7 p.m. Monday evening. A public meeting on the derailment and response is scheduled for Wednesday at 7 p.m. at the Columbus High School gym.

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