Residents Near Contaminated BNSF Site Settle Suit

By Beacon Staff

Nearly three decades after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency designated a contaminated railroad tie-treating plant near Somers a Superfund site, BNSF Railway has settled an ongoing lawsuit with landowners living adjacent to the 80-acre site near Flathead Lake.

Although the details of the settlement are confidential, a spokesman for BNSF said the company will purchase most of the plaintiffs’ private property near the site on Somers Road, and will continue cleanup efforts that have been ongoing for two decades.

BNSF and 17 plaintiffs resolved the lawsuit at a settlement conference earlier this month in U.S. District Court in Missoula.

“BNSF and all plaintiffs were able to resolve the pending litigation at this conference. BNSF can confirm that the resolution includes the acquisition of most properties owned by plaintiffs; however, specific terms of the settlement are confidential,” according to a statement from company spokesman Matt Jones.

The Somers Tie Plant is a remediation site managed by the EPA and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality. BNSF and its predecessors have been investigating and remediating the site since 1984, and BNSF’s work at and around the historic tie plant will continue, Jones said.

The company acknowledges that zinc, petroleum hydrocarbons and polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons have been detected in soil and groundwater on the property and have migrated “to some extent outside BNSF’s property.”

EPA project manager Diana Hammer said recent findings have revealed a large plume of creosote further underground than originally thought.

Research on the property will continue as EPA officials determine how to more thoroughly clean the contaminated soil and groundwater. The affected residents obtain their drinking water from the city water system, not the groundwater.

The 80-acre site near downtown Somers was once home to a railroad tie treatment plant. Owned by the Great Northern Railway, it was established in 1901 and operated until 1986. Today, the land is owned by Great Northern successor BNSF Railway.

For nearly a century, the plant produced wooden railroad ties that were coated with creosote to protect the ties from the elements. Other chemicals used in the tie-making process included zinc chloride and petroleum preservative mixtures, according to the EPA and the lawsuit, filed in 2009.

After a tie was coated with protective chemicals it was allowed to dry out on a “drip track.” According to an EPA report, the process produced up to 1,000 pounds of sludge every two years that impacted both the soil and groundwater. The contamination was discovered in 1984 and later that year the area was designated an EPA Superfund site.

In 1994, the EPA, DEQ and BNSF contractors began excavating and treating 50,000 cubic yards of soil and the groundwater underneath the site. Soil remediation was completed in 2002 and water treatment continued until 2007, when the railroad requested that the treatment system be turned off. Because the soils are so dense in that area, the groundwater moved very slowly and was difficult to treat. Since then, government agencies and the railroad have monitored the water’s condition.

A 1989 Record of Decision by the EPA called for treating contaminated soil on-site in a land treatment unit and constructing and operating a groundwater treatment plant. The remedial action started in 1991.

The most recent five-year review’s sampling results have raised questions about how far from the plant the contamination could have spread.

The case was originally filed by Kalispell law firm McGarvey, Heberling, Suyllivan and Lacey in Flathead County District Court on behalf of plaintiffs Richard Ortiz, Alice Enterprises, LLC and its members Thomas and Sheryl Abel.

The case was then transferred to U.S. District Court by BNSF under diversity jurisdiction and was consolidated to include plaintiffs David Graham, Michael Barragan, Pamela Barragan, Barbara Brown, Kathy Dugre, David Hayes, Deborah Hayes, Michael Michaelis, Melissa Michaelis, Mark Blasdel, Alice Blasdel, Robert Lincoln and Beth Lincoln.

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