BNSF: Somers Shoreline Samples Detect Slight Contamination, Biological Substance

Results of samples collected along the northern shore of Flathead Lake indicate low levels of contaminants

By Dillon Tabish
An unidentified sheen seeps onto the north shore of Flathead Lake near Somers on May 4, 2017. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Updated: May 7, 1 p.m.

Low levels of contamination were detected along the shore of Flathead Lake near Somers, as well as an unidentified biological substance, according to BNSF Railway.

Ross Lane, regional director of public affairs with BNSF, released a statement on Saturday evening that provided new details into an unidentified sheen discovered earlier this week on the north lakeshore near Somers. Lane said the samples identified low levels of contaminants from an unknown source, as well as a sheen that is very likely biological in nature. The results correlate with field observations and other testing, Lane said.

The exact types of contaminants identified in the samples remain unclear. According to Lane, “The samples were taken of the material on the beach and where the water levels were low. BNSF test results indicate that the contaminants are either fuel related or constituents from sources that could be plant or petroleum derived.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is awaiting results from its own separate samples that were collected earlier this week.

Lane said in the company’s statement, “BNSF has received analytical results of samples it had taken of the material discovered on Somers Beach. Those analytical results, as well as field observation and testing, indicate the material that formed an apparent sheen is very likely biological in nature. The material is also very similar visually to that found in another area of the lake. Low levels of contaminants that are normally sampled for were detected, but the source of those contaminants is not clear. BNSF is continuing to coordinate with EPA, Montana DEQ and the Flathead County Office of Emergency Services. BNSF is voluntarily removing the material from the area as a precautionary measure before water levels rise on Flathead Lake, or until additional analysis of samples confirm the material is biological.”

An investigation is underway along a section of shore spanning roughly 1,000 feet near Somers after reports of an unknown substance with an oily sheen surfacing in the ground and water. The EPA notified BNSF, which owns adjacent property, including the former Somers Tie Plant, an 80-acre site about 1,200 feet from the lake’s shoreline where wooden railroad ties were chemically treated for nearly a century before a lengthy environmental cleanup occurred.

In coordination with the EPA and Montana Department of Environmental Quality, BNSF contractors placed absorbent boom and pads at the site.

The sheen emerged at a section of exposed shoreline near Somers that is typically underwater during the summer months. In spring and fall, Flathead Lake is drawn down by roughly 10 feet from its full pool elevation of 2,893 feet. The lake typically is at its lowest between March and April.

Great Northern Railway, BNSF’s predecessor, established the plant in Somers in 1901 and operated it until 1986. The plant produced wooden railroad ties that were coated with creosote. Other chemicals used in the tie-making process included zinc chloride and petroleum preservative mixtures. 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.

In 2014, BNSF Railway settled an ongoing lawsuit with landowners living adjacent to the former tie plant, purchasing most of the plaintiffs’ private property near the site on Somers Road, which is near the oily substance detected this week.

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