Railroad Plans Environmental Remediation at Whitefish Yard

By Beacon Staff

BNSF Railway will submit a plan to the Montana Department of Environmental Quality in the coming weeks to clean a section of contaminated ground in its Whitefish rail yard.

According to DEQ project officer Jessica Gutting, the cleanup is part of an ongoing project involving the BNSF yard in Whitefish that was first studied in the 1970s. Then, the yard was owned by Burlington Northern and, prior to that, the Great Northern Railway.

“(BNSF) wants to do a small cleanup before getting into the larger cleanup,” Gutting said. “It essentially eliminates that piece of the puzzle.”

Gutting said the area in question is about 50 to 75 feet in diameter and contains a small trichloroethylene plume near the railroad’s roundhouse, a facility used to maintain locomotives. Trichloroethylene is a common degreaser and was used in cleaning solvents. Ground contaminations are common in rail yards and locomotive facilities.

According to BNSF Railway spokesperson Gus Melonas, the railroad is working with a contractor to come up with a plan that will be reviewed and approved by DEQ. The railroad hopes to complete the remediation cleanup during the summer of 2013.

“BNSF continues to work with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality concerning the ongoing site clean up in the Whitefish rail yard,” Melonas said.

There have been several environmental cleanup projects h in and around Whitefish during the last few years. In 2009, the Environmental Protection Agency ordered BNSF to clean the Whitefish River after an oily sheen was reported in the water.

Gutting said in the coming years the railroad would prepare a human health risk assessment before completing the entire cleanup of the area.

“We’re going through everything with a fine tooth comb to get all the information we can,” she said.

Gutting said the trichloroethylene spill BNSF hopes to clean up this year is located on railroad property, west of downtown Whitefish.

“It’s a complicated situation because you have the river right there and the petroleum products and solvents nearby,” she said.

Although the railroad and DEQ are still gathering data to find out how extensive the contamination plume is, Gutting said the tight soils in the area have likely helped contain it. She also said it’s unlikely any of the trichloroethylene plume could reach the river because the railroad constructed an interceptor trench nearby that filters water.

Gutting said it’s too early to know if the cleanup will affect local access. The roundhouse and spill is near both the river and a public walking path. Once BNSF submits its data to the DEQ, Gutting said it would take a few months for a final plan to be produced before contractors could start working.

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