A protected river is still vulnerable to oil spills


In every stage of life, I’ve lived near railroad tracks. The haunting sounds of night trains with their short-blast-long-howl whistles and steady rumble have always been grounding and comforting to me. I used to love watching gritty, graffiti-clad train cars pushing forward to get an important job done somewhere to my east or west. The history of the Great Northern Railway is fascinating, and as a river guide on the Middle Fork of the Flathead River, I’ve chronicled to guests how John F. Stevens found a route for the railway over Marias Pass and along the beautiful river in 1889.

But now, with the fracking boom in Eastern Montana and North Dakota, the haunting feeling I get when a train sounds its whistle isn’t comforting at all. It’s a dark, foreboding moan with a connotation that keeps me up at night.

This year, hundreds of millions of barrels of crude oil from the Bakken fields will be hauled on BNSF Railway’s riverside tracks to refineries in Oregon and Washington.  In October, the DOT released a report explaining that each oil car holds 700 barrels of crude, with each train carrying 120 cars.

Currently, one of these trains passes through John F. Stevens Canyon along the Middle Fork of the Flathead River each day. Tasked with hauling much of this fossil fuel is an aged fleet of 78,000 tank cars prone to splitting open during accidents. Since it would take only one car breaking into the river to damage the native cutthroat and protected bull trout fishery, I have difficulty with BNSF’s affirmation that it is “a safety leader,” and that its “incident rate is consistently lower than the industry average.”  BNSF averages 14 accident-related hazmat releases each year, and it has reported 2,800 accident and non-accident hazmat incidents since 1995.

The Federal Railroad Administration states that in North Dakota it found tens of thousands of track defects and issued more than 700 violations against BNSF since 2006, and that’s in just one state. BNSF has vowed to beef up its tanker fleet with 5,000 oil cars equipped with one-half-inch thick steel shields to prevent them from cracking open. But the company admits that the process of building these cars is backed up for two years. Meanwhile, the National Transportation Safety Board calls the current tanker fleet “an unacceptable safety risk.” That means BNSF’s commitment to safety translates into a two-year wait for new cars, not one of which is guaranteed to be used along the Middle Fork of the Flathead River.

BNSF says it will release an oil-train derailment response plan for the Middle Fork, including instructions on using containment booms. These precautions reveal that it’s not whether there will be a derailment at the river on Glacier National Park’s southern boundary, but when. There has been one good development: Citing numerous derailments, including an oil car explosion that killed 47 people in Quebec last summer, federal transportation regulators in the United States and Canada recently announced they’d be pushing enhanced oil tank standards with exact rules released this summer.

Less than one-quarter of 1 percent of our nation’s rivers are protected as part of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. The Middle Fork is one of those special few. With its federal designation as a Wild and Scenic River, this pristine home water should not be faced with an elevated risk of ruin.

My 11-year-old daughter, Ella, earned a blue ribbon at her school’s science fair for her project about oil cleanup methods. She experimented with tactics like containment booms, skimmers and dispersants. Ella was never able to remove all of the motor oil from her water pans. Afterward, we vowed to keep her science project alive by studying possible oil spill prevention strategies. Today, I’m reminded that what we’re faced with on the Middle Fork isn’t child’s play, and no blue ribbons will be handed out for demonstrating the cleanup of a toxic spill.

My younger daughter, Delaney, 9, who is still afraid of the dark, recently asked me what I was afraid of. Nothing, I told her. “That’s not true,” Delaney said. “Daddy says you’re afraid that something bad might happen to the river.”  Kids say the darnedest things.

Hilary Hutcheson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion syndicate of High Country News. She lives in Columbia Falls, Montana, and is a guide and host of the fly-fishing television show Trout TV.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].