HELENA – Globs of asphalt binder that spilled into Montana’s Yellowstone River during a bridge collapse and train derailment could be seen on islands and riverbanks downstream from Yellowstone National Park a week after the spill occurred, witnesses report.
Officials with the Environmental Protection Agency said cleanup efforts began on Sunday, with workers cooling the gooey material with river water, rolling it up and putting the globs into garbage bags. It will probably be recycled, said Paul Peronard with the EPA.
Alexis Bonogofsky, whose family’s ranch was impacted by an oil spill on the Yellowstone River near Billings in 2011, took pictures Saturday of the refined petroleum product covering rocks and sandbars. She also snapped an image of a bird that had died in the black substance.
“This killdeer walked across the asphalt, which had heated up in the sun, and it got stuck and died with its head buried in the asphalt,” Bonogofsky wrote in the caption of an image she posted on social media. “You could tell where it had tried to pull itself out.”
A bridge over the river collapsed as a train crossed it early on June 24 near the town of Columbus and 10 cars fell into the water, spilling liquid asphalt and molten sulfur, officials said. Both materials were expected to cool and harden when exposed to the cold water, and officials said there was no threat to the public or downstream water supplies, officials said.
However, the asphalt binder behaved differently.
“This stuff is not sinking in this water,” Peronard said Sunday. “It adheres really well to rock, and we can roll it up like taffy on the sand.”
Bonogofsky, in another of her photos, captured a sheen on the water. She said the spilled material heated up with warmer temperatures and “you can smell it.”
The Montana Department of Environmental Quality, the EPA and Montana Rail Link — the entities managing the cleanup — said more asphalt product was released Friday as a rail car was being removed from the river.
“Initial assessments indicate the release was minimal based on the amount of material believed to still be remaining in the impacted car,” the statement said.
Professor Kayhan Ostovar with the Yellowstone River Research Center at Rocky Mountain College also took pictures Friday of the petroleum product that had washed onto the riverbank about 6 miles (10 kilometers) downstream from the spill.
Ostevar’s team has been conducting turtle surveys below the derailment and is sharing the GPS locations of sensitive sites that are near areas where the asphalt binder has come to rest.
Turtles are particularly vulnerable to this type of spill, Ostovar said, because they are leaving the water right now to seek out nesting sites on gravel bars and basking in the sun.
The center was created after the 2011 ExxonMobil pipeline breach to gather better baseline information on species of concern that live in and around the Yellowstone River.
Statements from the agencies and the railroad over the past week have asked people to report the sighting of asphalt materials on the riverbank via email to [email protected], and have listed a phone number — 888-275-6926 — for the Oiled Wildlife Care Network to report animals with oil on them.
No reports from the public had been received, Peronard said.
Bonogofsky argued it shouldn’t have taken more than a week to develop a cleanup plan, especially since it’s known what materials the trains haul through Montana, as well as the damage the 2011 oil pipeline spill caused.
“We should have plans in place for this and we should have learned our lesson in 2011,” she said, arguing that work to clean up the asphalt binder could have happened at the same time they were removing rail cars from the water.
The last of the rail cars was expected to be removed from the water on Sunday, Peronard said, while agricultural users were notified that they could resume using river water for irrigation. Their irrigation canals had been shut down as a precaution.
Cleaning up spills of petroleum products is “somewhat of a losing game,” Peronard said. “We are never going to recover all of the oil here … and there’s likely to be impacts when we are done. That is unavoidable.”
As far as the cleanup delay, he said the response to any accident starts with protecting human lives, controlling the source of the spill and then protecting the environment. He said the agency also had to make sure its cleanup plan did not cause more harm than good for bird and turtle nests in the area.
Cleanup crews also have to stay at least a half mile away from eagles nesting in the area, Peronard said.
The spilled asphalt material is not water soluble, he said.
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