Threat: Oil Transport by Rail

Bordered by Glacier National Park and other protected areas, the Wild and Scenic Middle Fork Flathead River is a pristine national treasure. Unfortunately, the rail shipment of toxic and flammable Bakken oil threatens this special place. An oil train derailment could permanently degrade the river and downstream waters, harming communities and the economy. The Federal Railroad Administration must act now to address the threat of transporting oil along the Middle Fork Flathead River by developing a safety compliance agreement with Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad. This agreement must include site specific safety measures that would prevent derailments in this federally protected and critically sensitive Wild and Scenic river corridor.

The River

The Middle Fork Flathead River originates in the Bob Marshall Wilderness and flows 98 miles to its confluence with the North Fork Flathead River near Columbia Falls, Montana. It was here on the Middle Fork where the idea for the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act was born, when famed wildlife biologist John Craighead was fighting the proposed Spruce Park Dam in the 1950s. Ultimately, the dam proposal was defeated and the Middle Fork was protected as a Wild and Scenic River in 1976.

The Middle Fork Flathead forms the southern boundary of Glacier National Park. The nation’s third most visited national park, Glacier welcomed 2.36 million visitors and generated $198 million in revenue in 2015. The Flathead Valley, which includes the cities of Whitefish, Columbia Falls, Kalispell and Polson, depends on a recreation and tourism economy based on proximity to pristine lands and waters, including the Middle Fork Flathead.

The Middle Fork Flathead provides some of the best habitat in the nation for two native trout, the federally threatened bull trout and the westslope cutthroat trout (a Montana Species of Concern). Both species require clean, cold and connected habitat.

The Threat

Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad crosses the continental divide at Marias Pass, runs through Glacier National Park, and follows the Wild and Scenic Middle Fork Flathead River corridor. Burlington Northern carries Bakken crude oil from North Dakota and eastern Montana through this corridor to ports on the West Coast. 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.

Bakken oil is known to be especially volatile and flammable. In June 2016, a Union Pacific train carrying nearly three million gallons of crude oil derailed as it passed through Mosier, Oregon, along the banks of the Columbia River. Of the 96 tank cars on the train, 16 derailed. During the derailment, several cars were either punctured or had outlet valves sheared off, allowing crude oil to spill into the river. According to the Federal Railroad Administration, this accident was the result of inadequate track maintenance by Union Pacific combined with other factors.

Although there has not yet been an oil spill along the Middle Fork, between 2000 and 2012, 37 derailments occurred in this corridor. A Burlington Northern train derailment resulting in an oil spill, explosion and fire, or other hazardous materials release, such as benzene or chlorine, would be disastrous for human health and safety, water quality, fish and wildlife and the economy of the region. The steep, narrow, winding mountain corridor would make timely emergency response and cleanup almost impossible. The river’s swift current would carry toxic material many miles downstream to Flathead Lake before an adequate response effort could be deployed. Thus, when it comes to protecting the river and its clean water, it is critical that we prevent oil train derailments rather than rely on a response plan. This special place deserves a collaboratively developed, science-based plan to protect it from an oil train disaster.

What Must Be Done

The National Transportation Safety Board has included, “Ensure the Safe Shipment of Hazardous Materials,” on its 2017-2018 Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements.

The Federal Railroad Administration must address this threat by developing a safety compliance agreement with Burlington Northern. This agreement should require additional measures to reduce the risk of a catastrophic train derailment specific to the Middle Fork Flathead river corridor. The safety compliance agreement should include site-specific management practices and a timeline for implementation. For example, installing avalanche sheds at critical sites along the rail corridor and increasing the frequency of rail track inspections, are two additional actions that can be taken now to increase protection of the Middle Fork Flathead River.

The Federal Railroad Administration recently developed a compliance agreement with Union Pacific, requiring increased safety measures to reduce the risk of derailments, in response to the disastrous oil train spill in Mosier, Oregon. We must not wait until a toxic spill occurs in the Middle Fork Flathead to take action. To protect this nationally significant Wild and Scenic River, wildlife and communities, we need a Flathead-specific management plan. The Federal Railroad Administration and Burlington Northern need to act now to protect the Middle Fork Flathead River.