Middle Fork of Flathead on ‘Most Endangered’ list

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Andrew Lamont fishes the Middle Fork of the Flathead recently. (Chris Peterson/Hungry Horse News)

A national river conservation group has placed the Middle Fork of the Flathead on its annual top 10 “America’s Most Endangered Rivers List.”

American Rivers says the Middle Fork is threatened by oil train traffic as Bakken crude oil from North Dakota is hauled across the country via railcar by Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway.

“A decade ago, barely 4,000 railroad tank cars moved crude oil nationwide. Now, up to 18 trains, each with 100 tank cars, pass along the Middle Fork Flathead each week. One tank car can carry 30,000 gallons of crude oil and each train can haul up to three million gallons,” the group notes in its report on the Middle Fork.

The national Wild and Scenic river forms the southern boundary of much of Glacier National Park. The BNSF tracks run adjacent to the river, oftentimes close to the bank.

But in several years of hauling oil cars, there has never been a derailment of an oil train, though in the past trains carrying other materials have derailed in the Middle Fork corridor on numerous occasions.

An examination of Hungry Horse News story archives reveals there have been at least seven derailments since 2004 in the stretch of tracks from the Bad Rock Canyon to East Glacier. No one was injured in any of them, but none of them involved oil trains, either.

The last derailment was in January 2013 when four engines derailed just west of West Glacier.

“At BNSF, safety is the most important thing we do and we’re committed to the safe, efficient, and reliable transportation of all commodities including hazardous materials — 99.997 percent of all hazardous materials BNSF ships, move from origin to destination without release,” noted spokesman Ross Lane. “For well over 100 years, BNSF has moved freight through this corridor, and we are committed to being good stewards and good neighbors now and into the future. Overall, since 1980 there has been an 80 percent reduction in rail related incidents and the industry has never been safer. Our ongoing investments, along with the outstanding efforts of our employees, resulted in the lowest number of derailments in company history last year.”

But an oil spill would have consequences.

A BNSF spill response document from 2014 has a table crafted by the Coast Guard that shows how fast a spill could move downstream. Based on that table, a spill in the Middle Fork at a high water level of 13,000 cubic feet per second would move about 100 feet every 14 seconds, or about 4.8 miles in a hour. An uncontained spill in Essex would take a little more than six hours to reach West Glacier. The two towns are about 30 miles apart.

But more recently, BNSF has invested millions into the tracks. Last year the company announced it would spend about $180 million in its rail services in Montana. That included replacing 7,000 ties and 11 miles of rail between Whitefish and East Glacier. That stretch of track includes the Middle Fork corridor. This year it will invest another $100 million, Lane noted.

The company has also reached out to Glacier National Park officials and other first response agencies to coordinate a response effort in the event of a derailment.

American Rivers is asking for further safeguards, including federal intervention.

“The Federal Railroad Administration must address this threat by developing a safety compliance agreement with Burlington Northern,” the group said in its report. For example, they would like the railroad to build more sheds in avalanche chutes and have the FRA inspect the tracks more often.

But the railroad said it already has a strong inspection program.

“BNSF inspects track on most key routes four times per week, more than twice the inspection frequency required by the Federal Railroad Administration,” Lane said. “However, our busiest main lines can be inspected daily, which includes our route along the Middle Fork Flathead River. The BNSF Avalanche Safety Program for the Middle Fork corridor includes forecasting, education, recommended operating restrictions, snow sheds, and mitigation when needed to further reduce avalanche threats.”

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