Whitefish River Cleanup Nears Completion

By Beacon Staff

Three years after it started, the Whitefish River cleanup is nearly finished, with the bulk of sediment removal completed and only a few touchup projects to go.

Jennifer Chergo, a spokeswoman with the Environmental Protection Agency, said all of the targeted contaminated sediment has been removed down to the Spokane Avenue bridge, except for a “few isolated areas.”

Those areas should be completed next spring, along with contaminated sections below the Spokane bridge. The levels of contamination below the bridge are not as high, Chergo said. Crews are also expected to finish re-grading – filling in the riverbed where sediment was removed with rocks – in the spring, though much of it should be completed by December.

The remaining work should not require shutting down the river or bike path as previous work did, Chergo said.

“Whatever technology they use won’t be nearly as impactful,” she said.

The cleanup project was initiated after EPA officials investigated a 2007 report of an oil sheen and discovered petroleum-based products such as diesel and bunker fuel in the river. The EPA concluded the source of the contaminants was the nearby BNSF Railway fueling facility and ordered the rail company under the Oil Pollution Act to remove large amounts of contaminated sediment.

Water carried the petroleum products along a stretch of the Whitefish River downstream from the facility, the EPA said, leaving potentially harmful contamination in the river bottom. That stretch was targeted for sediment removal. The EPA says “exposure to petroleum-containing sediment could pose a risk to human health and the environment.”

The first phase of the cleanup project lasted from September 2009 to January 2010. There have been three subsequent phases, including the most recent, initiated earlier this year. After removal, the sediment is stored for drying on the BNSF property. It is then hauled away by rail to a disposal facility in North Dakota.

Progress on the 2011 phase was slowed considerably after crews encountered mechanical difficulties with the dredge, the machinery that removes the sediment from the riverbed. Chergo said this year’s phase, from just below Kay Beller Park to the Spokane Avenue bridge, “went much more smoothly.”

The EPA also oversaw a sediment removal project in Whitefish Lake’s Mackinaw Bay this summer. Crews removed approximately 450 cubic yards of contaminated sediment, resulting from a 1989 BNSF Railway freight train derailment that dumped around 25,000 gallons of diesel into the bay.

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