by Wendy WeaverExecutive director of Montana Freshwater Partners
On June 24, 2023, a train carrying molten asphalt derailed as a result of a bridge collapse plunging 10 loaded cars into the Yellowstone River near Columbus, Montana. As much as 500,000 pounds of liquid asphalt was spilled, contaminating the Yellowstone River for miles downstream. Despite posing a threat to human and wildlife health and river ecology, only a fraction of the molten asphalt was removed from the Yellowstone. Thousands of pounds of asphalt sludge remain in our beloved Yellowstone.Many of Montana’s railway bridges are over 100 years old, and are often made of timber. They are not inspected and replaced with the frequency of automobile infrastructure. We applaud the Public Service Commission for repeating their past legislative session ask for more capacity to ensure the safety of railroad infrastructure. Only a few months prior to the derailment, this request was made and turned down by the Montana legislature. We certainly hope the legislature will reconsider providing needed funding for the future safety of humans, wildlife, and our prized blue-ribbon rivers.
While we hope those measures may have a positive impact in the future – if approved by elected officials – what is happening to the hundreds of thousands of pounds of molten asphalt now floating in one of Montana’s most important and storied waterways?
In a conversation with Environmental Protection Agency representatives on Tuesday, August 8th, we learned that the first phase of Yellowstone clean-up is considered complete “over thresholds of a certain size” and that they plan to “let natural attenuation and future flooding remove the remaining material”. In other words, they picked up the big stuff and they are leaving the rest for us - leaving it to “dissipate” downstream where it is settling on gravel bars, shorelines, and diversion dams, and entering headgates that feed irrigation canals. Attenuate that, Montanans. They made the mess, but we must clean it up.
An informal site survey was performed this past weekend. Beginning at the derailment area and continuing over 30 miles downstream, it showed a profuse amount of plainly evident asphalt and oil deposits. While the molten asphalt contains oil, it is not a pure oil that was deposited into the Yellowstone River. The deposited asphalt mix contains binding properties that encourage the substance to bind together and form balls or, in hotter temperatures, to turn into a sticky, taffy-life substance. As a result, the asphalt is somewhat inert when exposed to the relatively cold water of the river but when it reaches the shore or structures and begins to warm up it becomes gelatinous and extremely tacky. Where our boats, gear, and skin were exposed to this asphalt substance it was nearly impossible to remove. Any small animals, birds, reptiles, or invertebrates that are similarly exposed will suffer very dire consequences.
At Montana Freshwater Partners we do not feel that the extensive amounts of remaining asphalt pollutants represent an acceptable standard for clean-up following the derailment. We are asking that the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and Montana Rail Link (MRL) continue with a more comprehensive, thorough, and appropriate clean-up effort. Too many lives and livelihoods depend on the Yellowstone River to accept substandard remediation after a spill of this magnitude.
We need your help! Scan the QR code provided here to download our free, easy to use “Clean Up Our Yellowstone” app or request a link to the app by emailing email@example.com. Use the app to easily drop a pin and map the location of any contaminated sites you encounter. You can add notes and photos to each site you map. The information you provide will be shared with MDEQ, EPA, and MRL representatives and used to quantify the extent of the remaining pollution and to demand more extensive clean-up efforts.
You can also email them at the following email addresses and ask them to do more than what the Unified Command determined as acceptable and not wait until 2024 to finish the job: firstname.lastname@example.org email@example.com LAlheim@mt.gov We thank you and the Yellowstone River thanks you.