For more than a century, freight trains have rumbled up and over the Continental Divide at Marias Pass, tracking along Glacier National Park’s southern boundary and rolling through the meandering Middle Fork Flathead River corridor.
Until recently, however, the chief environmental concerns centered on grain car derailments, which on occasion led to grizzly bear fatalities — the bruins reportedly feasted on the fermented corn and fell asleep in a torpor on the tracks.
But with the oil boom in North Dakota and eastern Montana, the consequences of train car derailments have grown far graver, leading to a grim designation for the Middle Fork Flathead River, a pristine watershed listed under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act for environmental safeguards.
On April 11, the Middle Fork was named among the nation’s most endangered waterways due to the catastrophic threats presented by trains carrying combustible oil, which conservation groups and local stakeholders warn could lead to severe spills and explosions.
The Washington, D.C.-based environmental group American Rivers said the designation shines a spotlight on the threat that oil train derailments pose to the river’s water quality, the corridor’s suite of fish and wildlife species, and the nationally significant Wild and Scenic values.
“The America’s Most Endangered Rivers report is a call to action to save rivers that face a critical decision in the next year,” Kascie Herron, Northern Rockies Conservation Associate for American Rivers, said. “As we prepare to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in 2018, we must insist that federal protections for designated rivers are upheld. It’s time to re-commit ourselves to safeguarding our last, best rivers, and we must start at the birthplace of Wild and Scenic Rivers, the Middle Fork Flathead.”
The Middle Fork Flathead River originates in the Bob Marshall Wilderness and flows 98 miles to its confluence with the North Fork Flathead River near Columbia Falls, where the idea for the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act was born.
In the 1950s, famed wildlife biologist John Craighead was fighting the proposed Spruce Park Dam, which would have backed the river up 11 miles, writing that wild rivers were a “species close to extinction” and were needed “for recreation and education of future generations.”
The dam was ultimately defeated, and Craighead went on to spearhead a movement that grew into the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968, a law preserving “certain rivers with outstanding natural, cultural and recreational values in a free-flowing condition for the enjoyment of present and future generations.”
On Oct. 12, 1976, President Gerald Ford signed a bill into law that protected 219 miles of the North, South and Middle forks of the Flathead River.
Today, BNSF Railway transports crude oil from North Dakota and eastern Montana through the Middle Fork corridor to ports on the West Coast. Up to 18 trains, each with 100 tank cars, pass along the Middle Fork each week, with a single tank car carrying up to 30,000 gallons.
A train derailment resulting in an oil spill, explosion and fire, or other hazardous materials release, such as benzene or chlorine, would be disastrous for human health and safety, water quality, fish and wildlife, and the economy of the region, according to the American Rivers report.
Glacier Park officials say the steep, narrow, winding mountain corridor would make timely emergency response and cleanup almost impossible, and have worked with BNSF to draft a detailed response plan in the event an oil train derails anywhere between East Glacier and Stryker.
Meanwhile, American Rivers and its partners are calling on the Federal Railroad Administration and BNSF to craft a management plan specific to the Middle Fork Flathead corridor.
Ross Lane, public affairs director for BNSF, said the railway has a corridor-specific plan in place, called a Geographic Response Plan. BNSF also has strategically placed thousands of feet of boom, oil skimmers and other emergency equipment, and conducts twice the amount of track inspections required by the Federal Railroad Administration.
“The Middle Fork Flathead is a nationally important river,” said Darwon Stoneman, owner of Glacier Raft company, which he operates near West Glacier. “Americans come from all over the country and tourists come from all over the world to have a life-changing adventure on this wild river that forms the southern boundary of Glacier National Park. Its protection is critical in supporting the livelihoods of myself and many others who call this valley home.”
Tom Bansak, assistant director of the Flathead Lake Biological Station, said from an ecological and water quality perspective, the Middle Fork is “as good as it gets.”
“Oil spilled from a train derailment would have devastating impacts as it traveled down the river corridor all the way to Flathead Lake,” he said. “We need to do everything we can to prevent such an accident.”
Robin Steinkraus, executive director of the Flathead Lakers, said communities and stakeholders up and down the Flathead Valley have spent millions of dollars protecting the water quality of the Flathead River system.
“An oil spill in the Middle Fork could reverse those gains in an instant,” she said. “We need a publicly transparent plan that will prevent a spill.”