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Reed Point derailment cleanup moving to phase 2 on Yellowstone River

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Posted at 11:12 PM, Feb 29, 2024

COLUMBUS - Concerns persist over the cleanup of the Yellowstone River from last year's train derailment near Reed Point.

That derailment, which happened in late June, sent 10 rail cars tumbling into the water, along with hundreds of thousands of pounds of asphalt.

Crews have already recovered more than half of that, with phase 2 of the cleanup process set to begin soon.

The Unified Command gave an update at the Stillwater County Civic Center in Columbus on Thursday night.

About 236,385, pounds of asphalt had been removed along the 131-mile stretch of the Yellowstone River.

The estimated amount spilled is 419,442 pounds.

"So we got over 50% last year and we're happy with that," said Larry Alheim, Montana Department of Environmental Quality state on-scene coordinator.

Alheim says 30 percent is considered successful for many oil spills.

Now he says it's on to phase two.

"We rapidly go down the river from the incident site to as far as we are seeing any asphalt,” Alheim said. “We look to see what changes to the river there have been because there are always changes to the Yellowstone. We look for any asphalt that we can find during that rapid assessment. And if we find asphalt, we call in an operations team to come and get it."

But some still have questions.

"Our concern is environmental and maintaining public access along the Yellowstone River,” said Jill Hickson, Yellowstone River Parks Association secretary. “The damage, it isn't just picking up tarballs."

Hickson’s group has written letters to the Unified Command, which consists of the DEQ, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Montana Rail Link, BSNF Railways Corporation, Stillwater County Disaster and Emergency Services, and the Montana Department Of Justice Natural Resource Damage Program.

"We are users of the riverbanks and anything that affects the river affects us,” Hickson said. “It's a natural resource of the people of Montana and we're here to help protect that."

Hickson also says the advisory to not eat fish can affect Outfitters and other fishermen.

On Sept. 23, 2023, the Montana Fish Advisory Board issued an active advisory to avoid consuming fish because of high levels of Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)

"So we will continue to monitor the fish,” said Mike Ruggles, FWP regional supervisor. “The reason that we went out there was the derailment occurred. We also found some PAH's but there's stuff above and below and so we will continue to sample that evaluate that at this point. There have been no direct link to the derailment and that material."

"We still get asked about the cause of the derailment, and that is something that is still being decided by the Federal Railroad Administration," said Jon Bennion, Washington Companies government affairs director.