BNSF Inquires About Land Purchases Near Superfund Sites

By Beacon Staff

Some property owners in Whitefish and Somers have been approached by Burlington Northern Santa Fe about purchasing their land. But with the railway giant remaining relatively quiet about its intentions and property owners reluctant to discuss the inquiries, the prospect of future land sales, at this point, raises more questions than answers.

Several people in Somers living along the intersection of Pickleville Road and Somers Road, near land owned by BNSF, received inquiries in recent weeks about purchasing their property. During roughly the same period, residents of Whitefish’s Railway District received similar inquiries from BNSF.

Both areas are adjacent to BNSF Superfund sites, where cleanup is underway on underground pollution caused by decades of industrial activity. In Whitefish, deposits of diesel fuel near BNSF’s roundhouse and tracks have been gradually spreading underground.

In Somers, the property owners approached live near the old railroad tie plant, where chemicals used to treat the ties, including creosote, petroleum, tar acids and zinc, contaminated a roughly 14-acre parcel where the plant once stood.

“BNSF is working with DEQ on this cleanup and the process does involve meeting with some of the property owners to discuss various options regarding their property,” BNSF Spokesman Gus Melonas said.

While work on the Whitefish site is ongoing, Environmental Protection Agency officials, who are managing the Superfund sites along with the state Department of Environmental Quality, said cleanup at the Somers site is mostly finished.

The Somers Tie Plant has been on the Superfund list since 1984, and at this point, the clean up is effectively over, according to John Wardell, EPA Region 8 Montana office director. The agency is monitoring the site, with extensive reports on its status issued every five years. The most recent report, published in 2006, declared that its findings on the cleanup of the Somers site, “indicate that the remedies for the soil and groundwater component remain protective of human health and the environment.”

Roger Hoogerheide, a remedial project manager for the EPA, said the cleanup is stable and has achieved industrial standards, but the former site of the railroad tie plant does not meet residential standards and probably never will.

“It’s just because of the nature of the contaminant itself,” Hoogerheide said. “You clean it up but there’s a residual that’s attached to that soil that’s always going to be there.”

Neither EPA official would speculate on what BNSF’s intentions might be for purchasing land adjacent to the Superfund sites, but confirmed that in both cases neither public agencies nor BNSF could condemn these properties or force the owner to sell, nor is there any evidence that these properties are contaminated.

“That’s a real estate transaction,” Wardell said. “Our focus is on the cleanup and we try to keep the two separate at this point.”

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