Whitefish River Cleanup Continues

By Beacon Staff

The third and possibly final phase of a project to remove contaminated sediments from the Whitefish River is beginning, with cleanup expected to last up to 18 months. The project will affect recreation on both the river and the nearby pedestrian and bike trail.

The Environmental Protection Agency is determining whether a fourth phase will be necessary in 2013 to remove sediments in “sporadic areas” down to JP Road, according to Jennifer Chergo, spokesperson for the EPA’s Region 8.

“It’s still undetermined whether there’s enough contamination to warrant removal down there,” Chergo said.

Last week Chergo said a floating hydraulic dredge – essentially a river barge fitted with machinery – was soon expected to start vacuuming sediment from the river bottom just below Second Street Bridge, where Phase II of the project left off in January.

Crews will complete as much work as possible before taking a two-month hiatus in winter. Next year they will complete the third phase, removing sediments downriver to around Spokane Avenue.

Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway is responsible for conducting the cleanup under the Oil Pollution Act. Studies have shown that the source of the petroleum-based contamination – namely bunker fuel oil and diesel fuel – is BNSF’s fueling facility, located near the river.

The EPA, which is overseeing the project, states that “exposure to petroleum-containing sediments could pose a risk to human health and the environment.” Altogether, the EPA estimates 20,000 cubic yards of sediments will be removed.

During the current phase, the Whitefish River will be closed to all boating and recreational activities from the BNSF rail yard to just downstream of the dredging activities, according to an EPA project overview.

“The length of the closed segment of river will increase as the dredging activities move downstream,” the EPA states. “This means that by the end of summer 2012, it is likely the river will need to be closed to the public from the BNSF rail yard continuously to Spokane Avenue.”

The pedestrian and bike trail will also be closed for the duration of the project from the railroad trestle to Miles Avenue for safety reasons, according to the EPA. Additionally, the trail will be closed periodically from Second Street Bridge to just downstream of Kay Beller Park.

The project’s first phase, lasting from Sept. 2009 to Jan. 2010, removed petroleum-contaminated sediments from a section of river adjacent to the BNSF facility. The second phase was conducted from July 2010 to Jan. 2011, focused on areas above the BNSF property and below the facility down to around Second Street Bridge.

Both of those phases required draining portions of the river and installing piping systems. Chergo said crews are able to use the hydraulic dredge on the current phase because contamination on this stretch of river is less concentrated. The dredge minimizes disturbance to the riverbank.

“We won’t have to be concerned about doing damage to people’s properties,” Chergo said.

For more information, visit www.epa.gov/region8/superfund/mt/whitefish.