In the early morning hours of Wednesday, May 3, workers at Montana Rail Link (MRL) were busy moving locomotives around the Missoula rail yard when three locomotives unexpectedly ended up in the same place at the same time. One of those locomotives “sideswiped” another, rupturing the other engine’s fuel tank and spilling nearly 2,500 gallons of diesel fuel onto the ground about 225 yards east of the Northside pedestrian overpass.
“It was a switching incident,” MRL spokesperson Lynda Frost said this week, more than a month after the spill. “It was human error.”
The incident occurred on the tracks behind the Sun Mountain Sports office building, less than 200 feet from Northside resident Mark Kersting’s front door at the Stensrud Building on North First Street.
“One day I just noticed some pretty heavy work over there and I went over to check it out,” says Kersting, who watched as workers used heavy equipment to lift the railroad tracks off the ground to remove and replace the diesel-soaked earth underneath. Kersting says he learned about the collision and the fuel spill from one of the workers, but he’s bothered that no local, state or railroad official ever informed him of the accident, and that the incident was never reported by any local news outlet.
“Why weren’t the neighbors ever notified?” wonders Kersting. “The main concern that I have is more about a what-if situation, like what just happened there [if it] was a toxic material instead. It could have affected a lot of people in a densely populated area of town.”
Michelle Hutchins is the environmental health specialist with the Water Quality District of the Missoula City-County Health Department who was on call that night. She says she was paged at about 4:20 a.m. on May 3 by a 911 dispatcher, about two hours and 20 minutes after the spill occurred, according to Hutchins’ report.
Hutchins says by the time she arrived at the scene the liquid fuel had already completely seeped into the ground.
“I did not consider it to be an immediate health risk,” she says. “They started getting it out as soon as possible.”
Hutchins added that the City-County Health Department issued a warning to MRL officials for not immediately calling 911 to report the spill as required by local ordinance.
According to Travis Ross of the City-County Health Department, the spill posed no immediate risk because of the depth of the groundwater and the makeup of the soil layers at the spill site.
The risk was “something akin to the type of exposure you could get from pumping it,” he says.
Since no immediate emergency action was required, the City-County Health Department’s oversight role was superceded by the fact that the Montana Rail Link yard is already a “high” priority on the state Comprehensive Environmental Cleanup and Responsibility Act (CECRA) priority list.
“In this particular case it was basically on the state CECRA site…due to past diesel fuel spills and other contamination for which Burlington Northern is responsible,” Hutchins says. “So basically we stepped back and let the state take primary enforcement authority.”
Daniel Kenney, an environmental enforcement specialist with the state Department of Environmental Quality, says his office has been working closely with the railroad.
“We’re now waiting for a report from MRL indicating that the spill has been cleaned,” he says, adding that he doesn’t expect the railroad to face any fines from the state.
So far MRL has taken 13 samples from the excavation site to determine if all the contamination has been removed. According to Frost, 12 of those samples have come back positive, indicating that remediation was successful. Test results for the last sample are still pending, she says.
Frost says the ruptured fuel tank dumped 2,450 gallons of diesel fuel, contaminating soil up to 8 feet beneath the surface before running into a layer of clay. At that point the diesel spread out under the tracks. Frost says the remediation work to remove the contaminated soil and stop the subsurface spreading began almost immediately.
“Immediately we had employees on the site and then we contacted our contractor, Envirocon,” Frost explains. (Both Envirocon and Montana Rail Link belong to The Washington Companies, owned by local billionaire Dennis Washington.) “In addition we notified the state DEQ and local DES. Within three days we had approximately 1,328 tons of material removed from the site and moved to the Missoula landfill.”
Frost says cleanup costs have topped $50,000.
Northside neighbor Kersting commends the swift response, but says he can’t shake the fear that one day it could be much worse.
“If what has happened in Alberton were to happen in Missoula…in front of Sun Mountain Sports, everyone in the neighborhood would have woken up dead,” says Kersting. “It just seems that it’s a poor decision to have that sort of heavy industrial application happening in a residential district.”
But Frost is quick to point out that activity in the downtown rail yard primarily involves locomotives. She says boxcars and tankers aren’t moved around in that area.
“The roundhouse area is basically there to service locomotives,” Frost says.
As for the human who erred in the early morning hours of May 3, leading to the whole fiasco: “Appropriate actions were taken in accordance to the rules and regulations of the railroad,” Frost says, declining to be more specific.