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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. MRL said cleanup efforts began last Monday.

Work began last week to remove the bones of 31 mangled rail cars and more than 3,500 tons of coal from above, below and on a 200-foot long section of riverbank on the Cabinet Gorge Reservoir in Sanders County.

The cars, each carrying roughly 122 tons, derailed from a westbound train on Aug. 13 and dumped much of their contents on the south side of the Clark Fork River reservoir between Noxon and Heron.

It took most of two days to clear the tracks and reopen them to train traffic. Montana Rail Link spokesman Jim Lewis said scrap and coal removal began Monday, when rail equipment and contractors arrived and loaded the first cars.

Lewis didn’t grant an interview request, but sent an update by email Thursday.

“A large percentage of the coal has been loaded on railcars and removed from the site,” he wrote. “The clean-up process has gone well and will wrap up shortly.”

Lewis wouldn’t speculate on the cause of the derailment, but said MRL is cooperating with the Federal Railroad Administration in its investigation.

The spill occurred eight miles upstream from the Idaho state line, and was readily visible from Montana Highway 200 across the river for weeks.

It didn’t sit well with some who expressed concern over water quality degradation, a history of derailments along the Clark Fork River system, and recent signs of spontaneous combustion in the coal spill.

The Clark Fork here is backed up by the Cabinet Gorge dam as it leaves Montana. The river empties into Lake Pend Oreille, less than 20 miles downstream from the spill.

Locals remember another coal train wreck in November 2006 just 17 miles upriver. Twenty-seven loaded cars in a 115-car train traveling from Wyoming to Oregon derailed on a bridge across the river west of the town of Trout Creek. Four of the cars were initially unaccounted for and were thought to be submerged in as much as 80 feet of water.

In rainy March of this year, an empty MRL coal train derailed on a washed-out section of track near the Lake Pend Oreille shore.

The Federal Railroad Administration classifies coal as a non-hazardous commodity, but there has been little research into the effects of coal and coal dust on waterways.

In May a federal judge in Seattle approved a settlement between BNSF Railway Co. and seven environmental groups who claimed that coal dust regularly flies off BNSF trains and into waterways. BNSF agreed to put $1 million toward environmental projects and to study methods for covering its coal and petroleum coke trains, and to clean up areas near Washington waters most affected by its trains.

The precedent-setting study of rail car cover “puts the rail operator on a court-ordered path toward keeping coal and petcoke out of sensitive water bodies,” said the Columbia Riverkeeper, one of the plaintiff groups.

Kristi Ponozzo, public policy director for the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), said it’s estimated that something less than 10 tons of coal reached the river from the original Heron spill.

Olympus Technical Services, a Helena company hired by MRL to do a water quality assessment, said a “small amount” ended up in the river in the immediate vicinity of the shoreline.

“However, due to a subsequent drop in water level, all of the coal was exposed above river level on the shore as of September 1,” the company said in the sampling and analytical plan it submitted to MRL on Sept. 8.

With the effects on bull trout habitat in mind, DEQ turned to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to oversee the water quality assessment. Olympus began four weeks of coal and river surface sampling on Sept. 12 in order to characterize concentrations of metals and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs.

FWS spokesman Ryan Moehring said because of its shallow depths and warm temperatures, as well as large populations of Northern pike and other predators, Cabinet Gorge Reservoir isn’t prime habitat for bull trout, which are on the federal threatened list.

Moehring said the only viable migratory spawning population in the area is the East Fork Bull River, which meets the main stem 10 miles north of the reservoir. Rock Creek, the next major drainage up from Bull River, is home to most of the resident bull trout.

“Our expectation would be that there may be relatively low numbers of juvenile and subadult bull trout residing in Cabinet Gorge Reservoir, either from reservoir resident populations or downstream migrating fish from upstream of Noxon Rapids dam,” Moehring said. “In other words, we feel the risk to bull trout is very low.”


Sandy Compton of Heron watched last weekend from across the river as workers poured water on what he called “some heavy-duty smoke coming out of the coal pile.”

He and a friend, Marjolein Groot Nibbelink of Sandpoint, Idaho, posted a selection of pictures on Facebook and sent some to area news outlets, including the Missoulian.

Compton, who owns Blue Creek Press in Heron and is program coordinator for Friends of Scotchman Peaks Wilderness, called the smoke “very concerning.” Loose piles of low-grade coal are subject to spontaneous combustion and once started, a coal fire is notoriously difficult to extinguish.

Workers manning chainsaws also were removing trees near the coal and partially covered by it, Compton said.

On Wednesday morning he and Nibbelink observed even more smoke coming from the coal pile, though it had disappeared by that night and the next day, when Nibbelink said she saw heavy equipment at the site for the first time.

It was too long coming, in the eyes of Matt Nykiel of the Idaho Conservation League in Sandpoint.

Rains that put an end to a hot, dry summer didn’t arrive in these parts until last Monday.

“It’s alarming that a rail company would be that irresponsible to create that sort of fire danger,” Nykiel said. “We’d been lucky until recently to kind of get away without fires in the Panhandle. It would be more than unfortunate to have a fire that could have been prevented, one, if they weren’t transporting oil and coal through in the first place and then, if it does spill, at least cleaning it up quickly and efficiently.”

It’s not known if the burning coal is adding more complications to a cleanup already challenged by limited access to the wreck site.

In his email, Lewis said simply, “A small amount of smoldering material was extinguished and is being removed from the site.”


The people in Idaho appreciate that the cleanup is finally taking place, Nykiel said. “But it’s sort of cold comfort because our states have long histories of different industries that take risks in local communities to make a buck.”

He pointed south to Idaho’s Silver Valley, where he said mining companies for years discharged waste into the South Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River or along the valley floor.

“And they never cleaned it up,” Nykiel said. “It’s now in the hands of the EPA and the state to clean up all that mess and remediate it. So to see a train derail and coal just lie there for a month or more on the river bank sort of brings back those old memories.

“It’s a trend we tend to see from folks who pass through our state or use our resources for their own interests. It’s troubling to see.”

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Mineral County, veterans issues

Outlying communities, transportation, history and general assignment reporter at the Missoulian