MRL-BNSF Empty Coal Train Derailment in Ponderay, Idaho


Rain and snow melt washed-out, BNSF train tracks above the Black Rock, lead-contaminated, former smelter site on Lake Pend Oreille in Ponderay, Idaho (Joshua Voss photo)

At 6:05 am on a dark, rainy Saint Patrick’s Day, Friday, March 17, 50 to 60 empty cars and a rear locomotive of an eastbound, Montana Rail Link (MRL), unit coal train derailed, remained upright, caused no injuries, and released no obvious hazardous materials in Ponderay and Kootenai, Idaho [1-5].  The wreck occurred on MRL’s mainline, owned and operated in Idaho by Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) Railway, a route typically carrying mixed freight and Powder River Basin coal – rarely Bakken shale oil and Alberta tar sands crude – from the east, through Missoula, around Lake Pend Oreille, and over the 4800-foot rail bridge southeast of Sandpoint.  Railroad first responders assessed the situation, located approximately 450 feet uphill and separated from the lake shoreline by a stretch of trees, only 250 feet from modest homes and two blocks from the post office and police station in Ponderay.  They would not estimate the timing of the re-opening of their tracks, but determined that recently intense rains and rapid snow melt had washed out a section of collapsed tracks “east of the intersection of Third Street and Cedar Avenue.” [6]

One set of train tracks and a Jersey barrier were suspended over a 30-foot-tall void in the railroad’s embankment on Friday.  At the bottom of the void was a current of storm water.  Other culverts under the tracks on Ponder Point appeared to be running at or near capacity on Friday afternoon…The cause of the wash-out remained under investigation…”High water levels and ground saturation are contributing factors.” [6]

The BNSF and MRL railroad companies, respectively based in Fort Worth, Texas, and Missoula, Montana, brought dozens of crew members, semi-trucks and trailers, and large pieces of ground and track-mounted, heavy equipment to staging areas east and west of the derailment, at Kootenai Bay Road and Seven Sisters Drive on both sides of Idaho Highway 200 in Kootenai, and at Fourth Street and Elm Avenue, adjacent to the railroad right-of-way in Ponderay, all photographed by Wild Idaho Rising Tide (WIRT).  Despite overwhelming railroad presence and close proximity to Ponderay houses, businesses, and government facilities, media stories rarely mentioned Ponderay as the location of this historic mishap, instead stating a derailment “west of Kootenai Bay Road in Kootenai, Idaho,” in the vicinity of a wealthy, lakeside, residential neighborhood.

While media reporters and government officials easily accessed the MRL-BNSF derailment mitigation staging site in Ponderay, to obtain crucial information, photographs of the damaged track area, and footage of interviews, nearby, impacted, community members and fossil fuel train monitoring and opposing activists could only reach the accident scene by vehicle and on foot for miles on snowy, lakeside trails, on muddy residential streets, and through wet forests, evading railroad cops to find, observe, and ascertain the accident scene [7-9].  At about 3 pm, two black helicopters left the Sandpoint Airport, circled over Lake Pend Oreille, and flew over the incident site.  Not until the following day, March 18, the local newspaper provided comprehensive event coverage confirming additional details of the emerging story.  By 4:48 pm on that rainy Saturday afternoon, a Kansas City Southern engine trailed one of the first, westbound, mixed freight trains crossing tracks repaired over the 30-foot chasm likely filled by the multiple dump trucks seen in the area since Friday. Continue reading

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