Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Regulatory agencies are considering enforcement action in the aftermath of a train derailment into the Yellowstone River

Workers on a recent weekday cleaning up along the Yellowstone River near Billings
Kayla Desroches
Yellowstone Public Radio
Workers on a recent weekday cleaning up along the Yellowstone River near Billings

State and federal agencies are investigating the environmental damage from last month’s Montana Rail Link derailment into the Yellowstone River in Stillwater County.

Spokespeople with both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality said the agencies are considering enforcement actions.

A spokesperson with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality says the DEQ is looking into violations under the Montana Water Quality Act and wrote in an emailed statement: “DEQ remains focused on emergency cleanup, and is participating in Unified Command for the incident. DEQ will issue a notice of noncompliance, and is determining options for enforcement action. We are committed to ensuring that necessary cleanup takes place, and that the responsible party is held accountable."

The Montana Natural Resource Damage Program, part of the Montana Department of Justice, seeks compensation in cases where hazardous waste damages state resources like rivers.

Restoration Program Chief Doug Martin says the NRDP is in the pre-assessment stage of gathering data that would prove injury.

“For instance, collecting some of the asphalt from the river and looking at the degradation rates,” said Martin. “How long is it going to take some of this to degrade or how much has it degraded? Are any of the components of the asphalt leaching into the sediment that could potentially affect aquatic life?”

The next step would be to measure the extent of the impact. A settlement would compensate the state for its losses and could take years before resolution.

As of Tuesday, responders had recovered approximately 165,000 pounds of oil-based asphalt material and found more than a dozen birds and snakes dead because of contact with it.

In a statement to YPR, Montana Rail Link said it’s “committed to continue working with all local, state, and federal agencies in addressing any impacts to the area as a result of the incident.”

Cleanup continues downstream.

According to a Wednesday afternoon news release, responders brought in five smaller boats to support cleanup as river water levels drop.

Workers are weathering hot temperatures and targeting big pieces of the material that can be more easily removed. Unified Command says it will deliberate when to stop recovering the substance as workers put in the same effort with decreased return.

Assessment teams are going out this week to determine how much material remains downstream and when cleanup efforts will conclude.

Montana Rail Link has restored the bridge in Stillwater County, and the river remains closed 1 mile upstream and 2.5 miles downstream of the site.

Other access points previously closed are now open to the public.

Kayla writes about energy policy, the oil and gas industry and new electricity developments.