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Phase 2 of Yellowstone River cleanup set for spring, months after train derailment

A snow February day for Reed Point's Waterhole Saloon, where Stephanie Joy works as a cook.
Kayla Desroches
A snowy February day for Reed Point's Waterhole Saloon, where Stephanie Joy works as a cook.

It’s been about eight months since a train derailed near Reed Point in Stillwater County and spilled thousands of pounds of asphalt into the Yellowstone River.

On a snowy afternoon in the 2,000 person town of Reed Point, Stephanie Joy sits with a glass of water at bar of the Waterhole Saloon where she works as a cook. She talks about a consumption advisory she spotted on social media sometime after the derailment.

“There’s concerns about the fish,” Joy said. “My grandkids come to fish. We still fished, we just threw everything back, so there were no fish fries on the river.”

A few miles away at a public meeting in Columbus, Safety Director Montana Department of Environmental Quality Safety Director Larry Alheim says a consumption advisory for fish in the Yellowstone River is still in effect.

“That is something that’s put in place by the [Fish Consumption Advisory Board], and we haven’t established where the PAHs came from," Alheim said.

PAHs, or polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, are found in crude oil, but also a whole lot of other things including a common shale rock in the Yellowstone River Basin.

Alheim says next steps this spring include further testing and the kickoff of Cleanup Phase Two, starting with a sweep of the river and continuing with cleanup.

“And that will look very similar to the way it looked last year where we have teams out on the islands, on the shorelines, picking up asphalt,” Alheim said.

Cleanup to date has recovered about 50 percent of the total pollution, which is estimated to be nearly a half-million pounds of material. A representative with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says 50 percent is more than most oil responses are able to recover before disturbing the environment further.

Unified Command is made up of local, state and federal agencies, and Montana Rail Link, which is footing the bill. DEQ says they’re pursuing enforcement against Montana Rail Link and sent out a notice of violation against the company. The cause of the derailment is under investigation at the federal level.

To find out more, check out the EPA's web page on the derailment and cleanup here.