In the shadow of an aged Superfund site, low levels of contamination and unknown organic compounds that may or may not be related to a former railroad tie plant have surfaced along the north shore of Flathead Lake near Somers, prompting an investigation and rekindling long-held concerns.
Katherine Jenkins, a public affairs specialist with the Environmental Protection Agency, said the agency’s initial samples, which were collected on May 5 from an unidentified sheen on the north lakeshore, indicate low levels of “volatile organic compounds and semi-volatile compounds.”
“We expect final, validated data next week,” Jenkins said May 12 in an email to the Beacon. “Water levels in the lake have risen over the past week and areas of sheen are no longer present. EPA has not made any determinations about the cause of the observed sheen. EPA and BNSF will continue to evaluate conditions at and near the property.”
When asked to clarify the type of organic compounds and the level of concern related to their presence, Jenkins responded, “Given the relatively small amount and the levels tentatively identified in the preliminary sample results, there doesn’t appear to be an immediate threat. EPA is working with BNSF to evaluate the nature and extent of the substances found. I will have more information once the data is validated early next week.”
Last weekend, Ross Lane, regional director of public affairs with BNSF, said samples collected by the railroad company identified low levels of contaminants from an unknown source, as well as a sheen that is very likely biological in nature. The results correlate with field observations and other testing, Lane said.
The exact types of contaminants identified in the samples remain unclear. According to Lane, “The samples were taken of the material on the beach and where the water levels were low. BNSF test results indicate that the contaminants are either fuel related or constituents from sources that could be plant or petroleum derived.”
The investigation is underway along a section of shore spanning roughly 1,000 feet after reports surfaced last week of an unknown substance with an oily sheen in the ground and water. The EPA notified BNSF, which owns adjacent property, including the former Somers tie plant, an 80-acre site about 1,200 feet from the lake’s shoreline where wooden railroad ties were chemically treated for nearly a century before a lengthy environmental cleanup occurred.
In coordination with the EPA and Montana Department of Environmental Quality, BNSF contractors placed absorbent boom and pads at the site.
The sheen emerged on a section of exposed shoreline near Somers that is usually underwater during the summer months. The lake is typically at its lowest between March and April, but spring runoff has fueled rising groundwater across the region.
It could be a coincidence that the oily sheen was detected near the former tie plant, but even before the recent detection, local health officials have had their attention on the Superfund site and its lingering contamination. The Flathead City-County Health Board is preparing to propose extending the boundary limiting well usage in and around the Somers plant because of two underground plumes that continue to slowly grow with fluctuations in groundwater.
Joe Russell, the department’s public health officer, said site samples were collected a year ago that showed contaminated product was moving underground north and east from the designated Superfund site. The health board is proposing a newly expanded “controlled groundwater boundary” that extends beyond the Superfund site all the way to the lake. The new boundary would impact three property owners, Russell said.
“I believe in controlled groundwater areas because if we have product on the top of the groundwater and on top of the unconfined aquifer, this is the best thing we can do if we can’t get it all out, which would be a monumental undertaking,” he said.
Russell said the area’s groundwater is heavily influenced by fluctuations in the lake.
The board is expected to review the proposed boundary expansion at its May 18 meeting. If approved, the petition would launch the rule-making process with the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.
Russell said the latest detected sheen on the shoreline could be related to a legacy landfill in the area or product leeching from other historic activities. This season’s high groundwater could be surfacing age-old contaminants that have sat dormant, he said.
“There may be some other things at play here, too,” he said.
By the late 1950s, the railroad tie plant in Somers was not only a strong economic driver in the Flathead Valley; it was a vital element of Great Northern Railway’s operations.
The local plant, which opened in 1901 and became the community’s cornerstone business, was the railroad giant’s only supplier of treated ties in the West. For two decades during its peak, the Somers site was producing 600,000 ties per year.
The plant was known for its quality treatment, which involved coating slices of lumber with a mixture of chemicals, including zinc chloride and creosote/petroleum preservatives, to protect the materials from weathering and insects.
The treatment process was messy business, producing constant wastewater and chemical dribble from the ties. Thousands of pounds of sludge piled up over the years, and an untold amount of wastewater was released into a lagoon at the south end of the property, about 1,200 feet from Flathead Lake. Overflow from the lagoon discharged through an open ditch directly into the lake or accumulated at a new pond that formed in the swampy area near the lake.
In early 1984, the Montana Department of Health and Environmental Sciences sampled soils at the site and within months proposed it for inclusion on the relatively new Superfund program’s National Priorities List, designating it for critical cleanup among the nation’s most contaminated sites. The proposed listing cited potential negative effects on Flathead Lake and the water supply for the town of Somers, which was drawn from the lake.
The Superfund designation was approved in late 1984. By May of 1985, the Environmental Protection Agency and BNSF Railway, the successor of Great Northern Railway, agreed on an emergency environmental action to address the swamp pond immediately next to the lakeshore. An investigation found the area posed “an imminent and substantial hazard to Flathead Lake because of the presence of heavy creosote contamination in the water and soil located within 20 feet of the shoreline,” historic EPA documents say.
Crews removed roughly 3,000 cubic yards of the most heavily contaminated soils and over 100,000 gallons of contaminated water from the swamp pond area and a portion of the drainage ditch. The area was then backfilled with clean soil, and riprap was installed along the lakeshore to combat erosion.
In 1986, as the EPA ironed out a cleanup agreement with BNSF and public concern spiked, the Somers tie plant closed.
In the last 30 years, contractors have tackled cleanup efforts, excavating and treating thousands of cubic yards of soil while addressing groundwater issues. Soil remediation was completed in 2002.
In 2014, BNSF Railway settled a lawsuit with landowners living adjacent to the former tie plant, purchasing most of the plaintiffs’ private property near the site on Somers Road. Roughly a dozen homes in the so-called Pickleville neighborhood were razed because contaminated product was identified beneath the properties.