Officials halting daily water quality testing after finding no harmful compounds downstream
By Blair Miller DAILY MONTANAN
Crews over the holiday weekend finished removing the remaining train cars from the Yellowstone River after last month’s derailment and bridge collapse near Reed Point, and while cleanup efforts continue, officials will no longer perform daily water quality testing after finding no harmful hydrocarbon or sulfur levels downstream of the crash.
Nearly two weeks after the Montana Rail Link derailment, a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency spokesperson said Wednesday crews had recovered more than 12,000 pounds of liquid asphalt that spilled into the river out of several of the train cars that derailed around 6 a.m. on June 26.
But crews have found through water quality testing no detectable levels of petroleum hydrocarbons or sulfur downstream of the derailment — leading officials to make the decision to discontinue daily water quality testing.
Officials allowed ditch users to reopen their irrigation canals on Sunday, which had been closed over safety concerns since the day of the crash.
“This is good news … we are able to place our focus on cleanup and recovery,” said Chad Anderson, the on-scene coordinator for the Montana Department of Environmental Quality.
EPA Public Information Officer Beth Archer — the spokesperson for the Unified Command for the incident composed of the EPA, DEQ, Stillwater County Disaster and Emergency Services and Montana Rail Link — said officials are monitoring the water and shorelines for 240 miles downstream of the collapse to try to clean up as much of the asphalt as possible.
An email address was created for local residents to report asphalt on their property so crews can come clean it up and so landowners can begin filings claims for the spill.
The cleanup crews are initially focused on areas they identified through streamflow patterns that have likely collected the most amount of asphalt closer to the site of the derailment and bridge collapse, Archer said. They have also set up a disposal site at the Holmgren’s fishing access site for private property owners along the river.
Thus far, the Oiled Wildlife Care Network, which helps care for animals after oil and other chemical spills, has found two animals killed by the asphalt: a bird discovered Sunday and a garter snake found on Tuesday. The network has a hotline (888-275-6926), which officials are urging people to call and report affected wildlife.
“Our team remains concerned and diligent to find any impacts to wildlife. We have been actively assessing the river and began removing asphalt materials to help mitigate impacts to wildlife,” said DEQ Incident Commander Chad Anderson.
On July 3 and 4, crews removed the final car that was in the river, which contained sulfur, finished moving all the asphalt from cars left on the eastern side of the bridge to new cars, then removed all of the cars from the bridge. The Unified Command said there is no further threat of river contamination.
On Tuesday, workers built a crane pad for another crane to be brought in to remove remaining portions of the old bridge, and crews started work on constructing a new bridge.
Montana Rail Link signed an agreement last week with the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen so it can run trains starting from Laurel to Great Falls and Great Falls to Shelby, the company confirmed Wednesday.
“Our train crews are assisting in the movement of trains from Laurel to Great Falls and Great Falls to Shelby in order to aid in traffic re-routing and supply chain continuity,” MRL spokesperson Andy Garland said in a written statement. “While there is no timeline currently available, bridge construction efforts are underway with the goal of returning to normal operations as soon as possible, while keeping the safety of our employees, responders, and community members as our top priority.”
The Yellowstone River remains closed a mile upstream and 2.5 miles downstream of the derailment and is expected to remain so during bridge construction.
The Unified Command group is holding another public meeting Thursday at 6:30 p.m. at the Columbus High School gym and on Zoom.