Montana Rail Link has begun cleaning up a derailment that occurred Saturday morning on a bridge near Reed Point, southeast of Big Timber, sending rail cars loaded with molten sulfur and asphalt into the Yellowstone River. It was the second major MRL derailment in just three months, following an April incident along the Clark Fork near Quinns.
The derailment occurred at approximately 6:45 a.m. Saturday, when a westbound train traveling from Laurel to Missoula derailed while crossing the river. Nobody was injured in the wreck. The cause of the derailment is under investigation, and it’s currently unclear whether a bridge collapse caused the derailment, or a derailment caused the bridge to collapse.
At least 10 rail cars ended up in the river, including some carrying molten sulfur and asphalt. Additional rail cars derailed on the west side of the bridge, including two carrying sodium hydrosulfide, a hazardous material used in the manufacture of paper, dyes and other chemicals. The cars carrying sodium hydrosulfide did not enter the river and did not release any material, according to the railroad. On Sunday, the railroad had repaired the tracks on the west side of the bridge so it could load the sodium hydrosulfide into another car and move it off-site.
The molten sulfur and asphalt were released into the water and the railroad said those materials tend to harden and solidify when they interact with water. Later, “globs” of asphalt were found downstream, possibly sourced to the derailment. MRL said it was testing the water in the area — with oversight from the Montana Department of Environmental Quality and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — and that as of Sunday afternoon, it appeared the petroleum hydrocarbons and sulfur had not impacted water quality.
“Water quality testing will continue until the cleanup is complete and at this time there are no known risks to public drinking water,” the railroad said in a statement.
Along with officials from DEQ and EPA, investigators with the Federal Railroad Administration and National Transportation Safety Board were at the site Sunday.
On Sunday night, additional equipment was being moved to the site to help with cleanup efforts, which included removing rail cars from the river.
“Site cleanup and remediation will be an extensive process, but we are committed to working closely with all of our local, state, and federal partners to perform all required work in a safe and efficient manner,” the railroad said in a statement.
As a result of the derailment, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks closed sections of both the Yellowstone and Stillwater rivers.
The derailment also damaged a fiber optic cable that was carried over the river by the bridge. That line, and the internet service it provided to area residents, was being repaired on Sunday.
Railroad officials have not offered a timeline for how long it might take to clean up the site and reopen the rail line — a critical route for cargo to the Pacific Northwest — but it is likely to take weeks. While that happens, freight that normally traverses MRL lines will be diverted onto other routes, including BNSF Railway’s main line across the northern part of the state. MRL leases its track from Huntley (near Billings) to Sandpoint, Idaho, from BNSF. Last year, BNSF and MRL announced that they would terminate that lease early and that the larger BNSF railroad would once again take control of the route across southern Montana. (BNSF operates 32,500 miles of track in 28 states; MRL operates on about 900 miles of track in two states). Earlier this spring, federal regulators approved BNSF’s plan to resume control of the line and the deal is expected to be complete by the end of the year.
Saturday’s incident at Reed Point was the second major derailment along MRL in just three months. On April 2, two dozen rail cars went off the tracks across the Clark Fork from Quinn’s Hot Springs, just east of Paradise. No hazardous materials were spilled, but cases of beer were strewn about the riverbank. The cause of that derailment has yet to be released.
The two derailments on MRL come as the rail industry across the country has come under scrutiny about safety following a series of wrecks, most notably in Ohio in February. Montana has had its fair share of train wrecks over the decades as well. According to the Federal Railroad Administration, more than 1,000 trains derail every year in the United States.
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Nearly three months after a Montana Rail Link train derailed near Reed Point, releasing 419,000 pounds of asphalt into the Yellowstone River, state agencies began advising anglers this week not to eat any fish caught on a nearly 50-mile stretch of the river.