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‘No big surprises’ in Whitefish River cleanup

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Cleanup of petroleum-contaminated sediment in Montana's Whitefish River is on schedule and so far has yielded "no big surprises," a federal spokesman said, according to The Daily Inter Lake. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is overseeing BNSF's efforts to remove roughly 36,000 cubic feet of oily sludge from a 500-foot-long stretch in the river's upper reach, upstream of the Second Street bridge to the northern boundary of the railroad fueling facility. About 100 feet have been excavated to date, to a depth of plus or minus one foot, EPA spokesman Jennifer Chergo said.

Good weather this fall
has allowed California-based Granite Construction Co. to install
oil-containment booms, build a 720-foot-long cofferdam along the north bank and
construct a haul road from the river’s edge. Contaminated sediment is removed
and drained, then is taken to the rail yard where it will be further drained,
mixed with quicklime and put in rail cars for shipment to a North Dakota
disposal facility, Chergo said. Inside the cofferdam, water is treated and
siphoned back into the river.

The cleanup area is next
to an interceptor trench built in the early 1970s to prevent an underground
petroleum plume from migrating from the fueling facility to the river. Chergo
said the trench’s functionality was investigated several months ago.

"We did not find oil
breaching the trench," she said.

Karin Hilding, senior
project engineer for the city of Whitefish, has been assigned city oversight of
the project, and said the city is waiting for a restoration plan on the
project.

"We want to see a
revegetation plan," Hilding said. "The main concern is that they get the area
stabilized before spring runoff."

Hilding said she walked
the cleanup site two days ago with Rob Hagler, a consultant with the
Kennedy/Jenks engineering firm hired by BNSF.

"It’s weird to look at
half the river with no water in it," Hilding said.

As for the sediment, she
said it "smells like oil and looks like oil."

Two weeks ago Whitefish
City Council members voiced concerns about restoration and erosion-control
measures, and wondered how contaminated sediment on the south side of the river
will be prevented from migrating into the cleaned area. Hagler noted at that
meeting that a membrane-type material would be installed between the two areas.

There’s a long history of
petroleum pollution at the rail yard and upper stretch of river, but this round
of cleanup was prompted by a citizen complaint two years ago of an oily sheen
on the river. The EPA investigated and found bunker fuel oil and weathered
diesel fuel.

Chergo said the cleanup
is on track to be completed by mid-December as planned.

The EPA is requiring the
railroad to clean about two miles of the Whitefish River, to JP Road, but
cleanup could extend even farther if the agency determines there’s a consistent
pattern of contamination, Chergo said.

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