In early November, the city of Whitefish will drill exploratory test holes at 22 different locations in the railway district as part of the first major offsite testing for pollution caused by the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway’s fueling and repair facility.
City Manager Chuck Stearns said, to his knowledge, there have been a few other attempts by private individuals to test for possible toxic plumes in the district, but nothing to this extent. Other tests, conducted by state agencies, the Environmental Protection Agency and BNSF, have taken place on BNSF property and the Whitefish River. EPA-mandated cleanup of the Whitefish River began in late September.
The city obtained a $50,000 grant from the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation to carry out the drilling. Hydrogeologist Roger Noble, of Applied Water Consulting in Kalispell, was hired to oversee the project. Testing will take place either on private property with the permission of the property owners or on nearby city right-of-ways.
As of last week, Stearns said the city had clearance to drill on 19 of the 22 selected spots. Eighteen of the locations are in the railway district’s west side between Baker and Miles avenues. The other four are on the east side between Kalispell and Columbia avenues.
Drilling will occur during the week of Nov. 9 and is expected to last a few days. The holes will be one-and-a-half inches in diameter and up to 16 feet deep, Stearns said. When done, the holes will be plugged and filled.
“This will be the first extensive offsite adjacent testing to see if of the plumes have migrated further than thought by the state or BNSF,” Stearns said.
It has long been known there are toxic plumes in the soil and groundwater at BNSF’s fueling facility, caused by years of diesel seepage and other contaminants. The railway district, considered a key engine to the city’s economic growth, is located next to the facility. After residents in the district began receiving calls from BNSF about purchasing their properties earlier this year, they became concerned that the plumes had migrated into their neighborhood.
The company remained elusive about its motives and intentions for the property inquiries, despite requests for information from city officials. Then in July, BNSF officials explained that their secrecy was intended to mitigate legal liabilities, not to avoid cleanup. Vice President Charles Shewmake also made assurances that there are no health or safety risks posed by the toxic plumes.
While officials and railway residents were grateful for the BNSF’s assurances, many of their concerns persisted. For one, some argue that economic growth in the district came to a halt – or at least slowed considerably – during the long period of uncertainty.
Still others are worried that their property is indeed contaminated, which would harm its value. There are health concerns to consider as well. With so many questions remaining, city officials hope the November testing will provide a few answers.
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