Court: BNSF Responsible for Cleaning Up Former Kalispell Oil Refinery

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – BNSF Railway is responsible for cleaning up pollution at the Kalispell site of a former oil refinery, a state judge ruled in a decision that could hit the company with a cleanup bill estimated at $32.5 million.

The decision by District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock of Helena came in the first Superfund hazardous-waste case that the Montana Department of Environmental Quality had taken to trial.

The ruling Thursday defines how BNSF or other parties with stakes in Superfund sites are responsible for cleanup, DEQ lawyer Cynthia Brooks said.

“I’d hope this (ruling) means responsible parties like BNSF will recognize the liability, and rather than choose to deny it they will accept that liability, clean up the site quickly and not draw the process out,” she said.

BNSF on Thursday indicated strong disagreement with the ruling. The company said it already has spent $5 million on cleanup at the Kalispell site and “never owned or leased the refinery property.”

In a statement, railroad spokesman Gus Melonas said that “BNSF is reviewing the decision and is considering its options in light of the (Montana) court’s reliance on a (related) case presently pending before the U.S. Supreme Court. BNSF is committed to being a good corporate citizen. It has worked and will continue to work closely with Montana Department of Environmental Quality to perform remediation.”

The state and BNSF went to trial last March over whether the railroad is responsible for cleanup of the property used for an oil refinery from the 1920s to 1963. Soil and groundwater are polluted from the dumping of petroleum products, dioxin and other hazardous material, according to court records.

The polluted area includes the Reliance Refinery site, the former Kalispell Post and Timber Co. yard and the former Yale oil yard, which has been cleaned up by Exxon Mobil under a settlement agreement. The court already has ruled that BNSF is liable for cleanup at the timber yard site, which is near the Stillwater River in Evergreen, a community next to Kalispell.

Sherlock said that BNSF shares at least some of the responsibility for the pollution at the Reliance Refinery site because its rail cars transported oil within the site to where it was dumped on the ground. The railroad also “owned or operated part of the facility where the hazardous or deleterious substances were disposed of,” he wrote.

Under Superfund law, a “responsible party” such as BNSF can be found liable for the entire cleanup at a site, even if it only shared in the ownership or actions that contributed to the pollution.

Brooks said BNSF has denied responsibility for the Reliance Refinery site for 14 years.

The company has done cleanup on part of the property, but the state estimates $32.5 million worth of work remains, to remove polluted soil and cleanse polluted groundwater.

“We don’t want the taxpayer to have to pay to clean up these sites,” Brooks said.

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