Rail Safety Plan is Welcome News

Risks posed are to the wild and scenic Middle Fork of the Flathead River

By Larry Timchak

The Montana Public Service Commission’s recent announcement to complete a risk assessment and rail safety plan within the next six months is welcome news to the Flathead Valley Chapter of Trout Unlimited. In addition to the human safety risks from a potential oil train accident, our Chapter has long been concerned about the risks posed to the wild and scenic Middle Fork of the Flathead River, a fragile but very important stronghold for bull trout and westslope cutthroat trout.

In a report last October, the Montana Legislative Audit Division said the state’s rail safety inspection program is not adequate and first-responders are not adequately trained and equipped to respond to incidents involving hazardous materials. BNSF has committed to spending $180 million to maintain its infrastructure in Montana including expansion of rail capacity. Some progress is being made planning for a response but more can be done to prevent a spill from happening in the first place.

In 2014 there were more than 141 “unintentional releases” from railroad tank cars in the U.S. That marked an all-time high and a nearly six-fold increase over the 1975 to 2012 average of 25 spills annually. The federal government predicts that trains hauling crude oil or ethanol will derail an average of 10 times a year over the next two decades causing more than $4 billion in damage.

Each week we see 12-18 trains up to 100-cars long carrying volatile Bakken oil pass through our valley. Each tank car carries up to 30,000 gallons of crude oil. Controlling and cleaning up a spill in the Middle Fork Flathead River will be a daunting task if it occurs, especially during the winter. Booms will be useless in many of the whitewater sections of the river. Responders may be able to clean some of the viscous material off the surface and rocks, but almost all of the toxic volatile chemicals such as benzene and toluene will flow with the water all the way to Flathead Lake and may pollute valuable groundwater aquifers along the way. The nutrient-poor, cold clear waters of the Middle Fork have very little capacity to recover from a major spill.

Please join Flathead Valley Trout Unlimited in urging the Montana Public Service Commission to develop a plan that helps keep our rails safe and protects our invaluable clean water and wild fish communities.

Larry Timchak, president
Flathead Valley Trout Unlimited

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