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BNSF continues cleanup

 

August 21, 2014

Eric Seidle

A home in North Havre, owned by BNSF Railway Co., left empty and slated to be demolished due to diesel contamination.

BNSF Railway Co. has been trying to clean the groundwater pollution caused by decades of spills from its business.

On Havre's north side, between the Milk River and the viaduct, the problem of pollution was especially acute.

BNSF purchased several homes as part of a settlement with North Havre residents who owned property with diesel pollution. Many have been torn down and others await demolition.

But people live in the others, and some of those people are quite content with the new look of their neighborhood.

Kate Fry, Montana Department of Environmental Quality's project officer for the cleanup in the North Havre area, said the pollution was caused by railway companies using the area for over a century.

BNSF will have to clean up diesel pollution to levels that meet standards, but the company has already been cleaning for the last 10 years and have been working on this problem since the 1980s, Fry said.

In 1998, DEQ issued a unilateral administrative order against BNSF, setting up a schedule on how the company was to get the area cleaned.

"As far as we know, there's nobody who's being directly exposed to unacceptable risks," Fry said.

Part of the operation that caused the problems BNSF is trying to remedy is the fueling and maintenance of the train engines decades ago, when chemicals were allowed to spill on the ground. Those chemicals seeped into the earth and contaminated the groundwater, Fry said.

There are three major plumes, Fry said: one near the diesel repair shop, one near the annex building and the third further west in the former fueling area.

To the west of the bridge, an old dry-cleaning business that is now out of business added to the plume by releasing tetrachloroethylene, called TCE, into the ground. The chemical mixed with BNSF's pollution plume, and now BNSF is cleaning up both companies' messes.

TCE is a common fluid used in dry cleaning.

BNSF has diesel recovery systems in place that have been working to collect diesel from the ground.

Fry said they are in a human health risk-assessment phase, in which they identify what areas they will have to clean up.

"After that, then we'll move into a feasibility study where they'll identify the various alternatives to clean up what we've deemed unacceptable," Fry said.

BNSF has been buying properties in North Havre for many years and demolishing the structures that stand on them.

The company began doing this after a lawsuit from North Havre residents. Part of the settlement was the BNSF would offer to buy certain properties in the area if the owners decided they wanted to sell them.

The lawsuit was filed in 2004 by about 80 North Havre residents who claimed that BNSF had caused mental and physical health problems and lowered their properties' values because of the contamination.

The last property that was purchased by the railroad was in 2013.

"They are areas that have historically been contaminated," Fry said. "There's some places in Havre that meet the standards and some that don't."

"BNSF owns a number of residential properties in North Havre and has generally acquired these properties or future rights to purchase property in this area as part of resolutions of claims previously asserted by North Havre residents," wrote Matt Jones, the public affairs director for BNSF.

Jones said BNSF is not approaching property owners and is not actively seeking to acquire additional properties or property rights.

Caleb Hutchins

This map, using data from a DEQ study, shows a plume of polluted ground in yellow, the largest of three affected areas in Havre caused by railroad activities dumping deisel fuel and other chemicals onto the ground over decades.

"For properties BNSF previously acquired, BNSF generally removes structures on the properties," Jones wrote.

As part of the 2004 settlement with the North Havre property owners, the company gives them the option of having the railroad buy their property.

The railroad has been providing the people of the affected area of North Havre for as long as Vicki Simonson as lived there.

Simonson, who has been living in North Havre for around 10 years, said she is used to BNSF buying property in the area. She said it is strange how trees grow easily in certain areas and not in others. She said her parents' property was one of the first bought by BNSF and the trees grow fine on it.

Her neighbor's trees, on the other hand, are all dead.

She said she did not mind BNSF buying up properties in North Havre and demolishing the structures on them.

"It's going to be nice," Simonson said. "It's going to be like a park setting."

 

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