New Film Raises Concerns over Oil Trains near Glacier

Flathead Lakers say recent avalanches along railroad underscore safety worries, but BNSF defends their safety record

By Justin Franz
A BNSF oil train rolls through Whitefish. Beacon file photo

A new documentary from the Flathead Lakers is again raising concerns over the movement of crude oil by rail along Glacier National Park. Promoters of the film say it is especially relevant following a series of avalanches that halted rail traffic earlier this month.

But officials with BNSF Railway have said they are doing everything they can to ensure the safe movement of oil through Northwest Montana, an undertaking that has increased dramatically in recent years thanks to the Bakken oil boom.

The six-minute film, titled “Oil and Water Don’t Mix,” interviews many of the notable conservation players in Northwest Montana, including Glacier Superintendent Jeff Mow and Flathead Lake Biological Station Director Emeritus Dr. Jack Stanford. Viewers also meet the mayor and fire chief from Mosier, Oregon, where a Union Pacific oil train derailed and exploded in June 2016 in the heart of the Columbia River Gorge. The incident was one of more than a dozen fiery oil train wrecks that have occurred across North America in recent years.

“What happened in Mosier needs to be a wake-up call because we don’t want something like that to happen in our backyard,” said Greg McCormick, past president of the Flathead Lakers and a current board member. “An oil train derailment here would impact everyone from people recreating to agricultural water users and municipalities.”

The film also highlights what happened in Whitefish Lake in 1989 when tank cars loaded with fuels derailed and spilled.

McCormick said this month’s avalanches east of Essex — which impacted BNSF’s tracks and shut down the line for days at a time — underscore the fact that more needs to be done to prevent an accident. McCormick and others suggested that additional snow sheds — structures that cover the tracks to protect them from avalanches — should be constructed.

But BNSF defends its safety record, and officials said they are taking steps to continue ensuring the safe movement of oil. The railroad currently runs 10 to 18 oil trains through Northwest Montana every week, according to spokesperson Ross Lane.

In a statement to the Beacon, the railroad highlighted its maintenance program. In recent years, BNSF has spent more than $500 million in its tracks in Montana, and it plans to invest another $100 million in 2017. The railroad has also increased the number of defect detectors — a trackside installation that can determine if a passing rail car is malfunctioning — along the Middle Fork canyon. BNSF also operates the loaded oil trains at slower speeds and has increased the number of track inspections in the area.

Lane noted that since 2000, BNSF has reduced the number of main line derailments by 50 percent, and in 2016, had its lowest number of derailments in history.

The railroad also touted its avalanche safety program in John F. Stevens Canyon and its work with avalanche forecasters to predict when slides may impact the rails and when operations should be curtailed.

“The shared history of the railroad and special places like Glacier Park and the larger ecosystem goes back well over 100 years,” Lane said. “It’s our commitment to continue to be good stewards and good neighbors for the next century and beyond.”

The railroad has also installed equipment to respond to an incident should an oil train derail and catch fire, including thousands of feet of containment boom to contain oil should it enter the river.

But McCormick and others think more should be done and question if anyone could effectively respond to a spill in the tight Middle Fork canyon.

“This is something that needs to be discussed within the entire community,” he said.

To see the film, visit cfrech.com/oil-and-water.

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