Coal on Clark Fork

Montana Rail Link and local firefighters work on Sept. 16 to put out hot spots in coal spilled in the Aug. 13 derailment of 31 rail cars along the Cabinet Gorge Reservoir west of Noxon. 

Courtesy of Sandy Compton and Marjolein Groot Nibbelink

It’s been a month since a Montana Rail Link (MRL) coal train derailed along the Clark Fork River near Heron, dumping coal into the river and along its banks. To date, MRL has yet to clean up its mess. Piles of coal still litter the shoreline near an ecologically sensitive river that has overcome decades of mining pollution.

By failing to clean up the coal it dumped, MRL isn’t just being irresponsible, it’s putting local communities in danger. Last week the coal began to combust, risking a potential wildfire given the extremely dry conditions in Montana and Idaho. And although recent rains will hopefully extinguish the heat, the water running off the coal may wash harmful byproducts like mercury, lead and arsenic into the river and surrounding Kootenai National Forest. MRL’s unwillingness to clean up its coal is negligent and irresponsible, and belies the rail and fossil fuel industries’ claims that transporting coal and oil by rail is good for communities along the rail line.

Courtney Wallace, a Seattle-based BNSF representative, issued a guest opinion recently, extolling BNSF’s safety record and emergency response while minimizing the risk coal and oil trains create in our railside communities. But following four significant derailments near sensitive waterways in North Idaho just this year, these assurances ring hollow. To her, transporting coal and oil by rail through towns in Idaho and Montana may be a good deal because it doesn’t put her home or water at risk, but for those of us living here, I’d say clean water and public safety are our first priorities, not the coal and oil passing through our towns.

Seeing the coal lie along the Clark Fork River over a month after the spill is a disturbing reminder of the historic trend of industries not caring for the places they do business. Communities in Idaho’s Silver Valley, as well as so many others in Montana, have suffered industry negligence and irresponsibility for years because mining companies refused to clean up their mine waste, leaving it for the Environmental Protection Agency and our state governments to clean up later. These communities have found out the hard way that some contaminants are impossible to ever fully clean up. Even now an estimated 83 million tons of contaminated sediment lurk on the bottom of Lake Coeur d’Alene, after being washed down the Coeur d’Alene River from mine waste in the Silver Valley.

The bottom line is cleanup and emergency response plans don’t justify the risk that coal and oil trains pose on our water and public safety, especially when the spills never get cleaned up. We’ve witnessed other communities get burned by risking their public health and water in favor of business profits. We shouldn’t let BNSF and the other rail companies do the same to us. For this reason, in North Idaho we’re advocating against BNSF’s proposal to add a second rail bridge over Lake Pend Oreille, which would increase the odds of a train derailment like the one along the Clark Fork and could lead to more coal and oil traffic by rail throughout the region.

If one of MRL’s or BNSF’s trains derailed over Lake Pend Oreille or over the Clark Fork River near East Missoula, do you think either of these rail companies would clean up after themselves and restore the clean water our communities rely on? Take a drive west on Highway 200, towards Heron. You’ll find the answer to that question there.

Matt Nykiel is a conservation associate with the Idaho Conservation League.

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