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Investigation still in progress after 10 railcars plunged into the Yellowstone River

by By AMANDA EGGERT Montana Free Press
| July 2, 2024 7:00 AM

A year after 10 Montana Rail link railcars plummeted into the Yellowstone near Reed Point, sending nearly 412,000 pounds of molten asphalt into the river, federal authorities have yet to release their findings on the cause of the crash.

The Federal Railroad Administration told Montana Free Press that the crash, which occurred on June 24, 2023, is still under investigation. FRA spokesperson William Wong did not provide a timeline for the release of its report but did say the agency is in the final phase of its investigation.

A report Montana Rail Link provided to the FRA in the weeks after the accident says only that a portion of its train derailed while crossing a bridge over the Yellowstone. Sixteen of the 35 rail cars carrying hazardous materials derailed or were damaged in the incident. 

The cars that fell into the river contained molten sulfur, scrap metal and molten asphalt, or crude oil mixed with gravel or sand. The asphalt was the primary area of concern for downstream water users and the focus of a multi-month clean-up effort that recovered about 236,000 pounds of asphalt. The clean-up effort is ongoing but has slowed considerably as less “actionable asphalt” remains along the river’s banks.

In September, the state of Montana advised anglers not to eat fish caught in a 48-mile section of the Yellowstone River downstream of Reed Point due to elevated levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), which are found in oil, gas, plastics and pesticides and can occur naturally in the environment, particularly in the shale rock that’s common in the Yellowstone River basin. 

On May 31, the Fish Consumption Advisory Board lifted its September advisory but urged women of reproductive age and children younger than 6 not to eat sucker fish (a species not commonly consumed by humans) caught between Laurel and the Yellowstone’s confluence with the Bighorn River due to elevated levels of petroleum hydrocarbons in collected samples. The board consists of representatives from the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

During a meeting in Columbus on Feb. 29, Mike Ruggles, regional supervisor with FWP, said the department had compared recovered asphalt with the PAH found in the fish tissue sampled, and the “fingerprints” between the two didn’t quite align, making it difficult to determine if the elevated levels were tied to the derailment. He said that at that time there was “no direct link to the derailment and that material.”

In an email to Montana Free press, DEQ spokesperson Rebecca Harbage said fish sampling between a fishing access site near the derailment and Worden is ongoing. Results, which will be reviewed by the board, are anticipated in late August.