Shared-use Path Along Whitefish River to Reopen July 1

The closure went into effect May 22 as BNSF environmental contractors worked to improve a system engineered to capture contaminants from a nearby Superfund site

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

A shared-use path along the Whitefish River will reopen on July 1, signaling the end of a closure that went into place in late May due to ongoing work by BNSF Railway to prevent contaminants from leaching out of a nearby state Superfund site and entering the river.

The City of Whitefish announced on June 29 that the path as it stretches from the end of the railyard north of the trestle to Miles Avenue will remain open “other than intermittent closures as needed for additional restoration work.” The city is asking that park and path users in the area stay on designated pathways and open park areas closely.

The closure stemmed from the detection of an oil sheen on the Whitefish River in April, which BNSF’s environmental engineer contractor Kennedy/Jenks Consultants believes was the result of abnormally low water levels allowing groundwater carrying chemicals from the Superfund site to go beneath an existing interceptor trench, which the contractor has since improved.

When city officials announced the construction-related closure, they estimated it would remain in effect for approximately six more weeks, which would have extended into July.

BNSF has previously characterized the sheen that was discovered on April 10 as small, and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality has said no measurable amount of petroleum was found in the river.

The eastern portion of the Roundhouse Landing river access, including the public dock, will also be opened back up to the public on July 1, according to a press release from the city. A western portion of the Roundhouse Landing will stay closed due to ongoing construction, and the city press release says that the city and BNSF will continue to work together to “ensure the rehabilitation of the Roundhouse Landing river access.”

Part of the work BNSF has undertaken includes installing a second, deeper interceptor trench closer to the river on the western side of the existing interceptor trench. The interceptor trenches are designed to tie into an existing sump pump system, which receives water from drainage pipes and sends it through an oil water separation system.

The 78-acre BNSF Superfund site at its Whitefish railyard has a history of contamination associated with releases from the railyard related to fueling repair, railroad operations and wastewater transportation to lagoons. The railyard’s history of use predates BSNF’s ownership and stretches back to 1903. Chemical substances that have been identified in contaminated soil groundwater associated with the Superfund site include petroleum products, polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), volatile organic compounds (VOCS), and heavy metals.

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