BNSF: Work On Whitefish River Oil Sheen to Continue

On Friday morning, the DEQ had yet to receive a formal report on the incident, but a spokesperson said the state agency was receiving email updates

By Mike Kordenbrock
A BNSF Railway-led crew investigates an oil sheen on the Whitefish River in Whitefish on April 11, 2023. Hunter D'Antuono | Flathead Beacon

BNSF Railway expects that its work in response to an oil sheen observed on the Whitefish River near one of its rail yards will continue through next week.

A section of the BNSF rail yard in Whitefish is a high-priority state Superfund site due to a legacy of soil and groundwater contamination stretching back decades. BNSF has characterized the current situation on the Whitefish River as involving “a small seep and sheen” near its Whitefish rail yard, located near downtown.

Lena Kent, the BNSF general director of public affairs, wrote in an email this week about the newly discovered oil sheen that there have been no reported spills or releases in the yard, adding that “this issue is not related to any current railroad operations.”

Speaking by email Friday, Kent said her company is continuing to investigate and remediate in coordination with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), and that initial restoration activities are ongoing. Earlier this week, BNSF installed a protective boom along the shoreline in an effort to protect the river, and heavy equipment could be seen disturbing soil near the river’s edge.

BNSF has said it first discovered the sheen April 10, and reported it to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the DEQ. On April 11, DEQ said it was in communication with BNSF about the sheen and the emergency response, and that BNSF would provide a report about response actions and its preliminary investigation, with DEQ possibly requiring additional investigation prior to approving a cleanup plan aimed at addressing the contamination source. On Friday morning, a DEQ spokesperson said the agency had yet to receive a formal report on the incident, but that DEQ was receiving email updates from BNSF about the situation.

The city of Whitefish announced on the morning of April 11 that closures were in place at the bike and pedestrian path between Miles Avenue and Edgewood Place along the river and at the Roundhouse Landing River Access as BNSF investigated the oil sheen on the Whitefish River near the BNSF rail yard.

The 78-acre superfund site in Whitefish has been a locomotive fueling and repair facility since 1903, and releases associated with fueling repair, railroad operations, and wastewater transportations to the lagoons have been identified as the causes of soil and groundwater contamination by harmful chemicals and substances including petroleum products, polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and heavy metals.

In 2007, a petroleum sheen was detected along the Whitefish River, and an investigation by the EPA led to BNSF being ordered to clean the river along the rail yard.

From 2009 through 2013, cleanup crews dredged a 1.5-mile section of river, removing about 26,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment as part of the environmental remediation.

In the summer of 2019, another petroleum sheen was reported along the Whitefish River, near the BNSF rail yard and locomotive maintenance facility. BNSF ultimately coordinated with the Montana DEQ and the EPA in cleanup efforts, which included soil excavation near Railway Street and Miles Avenue.