Railroad Anxiety

By Kellyn Brown

Burlington Northern Sante Fe is up to something. The railroad giant has approached property owners in Whitefish and Somers, offering to buy their land. No one knows why, exactly, not even those who have been asked to sell. And BNSF isn’t talking – leaving entire neighborhoods apprehensive about what their backyards may soon look like.

In Somers, several people living along the intersection of Pickleville and Somers roads have received inquiries about selling. They own homes next to the old railroad tie plant, where chemicals used to treat ties contaminated a 14-acre parcel where the plant once stood.

But that doesn’t explain BNSF’s motives, because, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, cleanup at the Somers site is mostly finished. The agency continues to monitor the site and issues comprehensive reports on its status every five years. The last one found that the soil and groundwater in the area “remain protective of human health and the environment.”

The EPA doesn’t know why BNSF wants to buy the adjacent land. And when asked by the Beacon, a spokesman with the railroad company said, “BNSF is working with the (Department of Environmental Quality) on this cleanup and the process does involve meeting with some of the property owners to discuss various options regarding their property.”

That explains nothing. Cleanup prevents building on the old railroad tie site, but since the adjacent homes are deemed habitable, the EPA considers the proposals in both Somers and Whitefish as a potential “real estate transaction.” But, as far as I know, BNSF is not in the real estate business and, as home prices fall, now seems an inopportune time for such a venture.

BNSF denies that the safety of the ground below homeowners it has approached about purchasing has changed, yet in the absence of any concrete information, people tend to think the worst. If there are no further hazards from contamination, then someone at the railroad company needs to say as much and explain the railroad company’s intentions.

In Whitefish, home and business owners in the up-and-coming Railway District are nervous. The Railway District has only reinvented itself in the last few years. Historic homes have been renovated, townhouses have been built and several businesses have been launched as the area has taken on its own identity. Yet growth there, like elsewhere, has stalled in recent months. There are several empty buildings and the uncertainty hanging over the neighborhood won’t help fill them.

A spokesman for DEQ told the Missoulian recently that “there’s nothing to suggest there’s any contamination in the neighborhood BNSF wants to buy, according to the data that we have.”

But that hasn’t stopped several people, including the Whitefish city attorney, from assuming that the land below the Railway District is, in fact, contaminated. Already, tenants in the area have been told to look for new offices as their landlords consider BNSF’s offers. And neighbors are beginning to wonder which buildings next to theirs may be razed.

For its part, the railroad company continues mimicking Officer Barbrady from “South Park,” telling everyone: “move along, there’s nothing to see here.” If that’s the case, someone needs to demand what’s so inconsequential in Whitefish and Somers before bulldozers begin tearing down buildings and changing the face of these neighborhoods forever.

A private company certainly has every right to conduct real estate transactions without justifying itself to the media. But in the cases of Whitefish and Somers, when the lack of information is causing significant anxiety among residents of these neighborhoods, Burlington Northern owes them a more comprehensive explanation. That’s called being a good neighbor.

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