Since late on Wednesday, New Year’s Day, north Idahoans and Wild Idaho Rising Tide (WIRT) have been enduring a major environmental disaster: Two rockslide-derailed, Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) Railway locomotives in the Kootenai River, one nose-down on the bank and one submerged and leaking at least 2,100 gallons of diesel fuel toward a Kootenai Tribe fish restoration hatchery, 2.5 miles downstream, and into the critical habitat of three endangered species (sturgeon, burbot, and bull trout) and private and municipal water sources. Industry-friendly, mainstream media have been repeating and embellishing hero stories about multiple emergency response agencies rescuing the trapped, almost drowned, two-person, BNSF crew with a county sheriff boat, two hours after a BNSF co-worker climbed down the now fully sunk, front engine and sledge-hammered and kicked its window open. But is potential and proven emergency preparedness truly heroic when its enables the further ecosystem and economic devastation imposed on rural communities by private profiteers’ inherently perilous, fossil-fueled railroads?
Early on January 2, hazardous materials and other crews placed oil containment booms and shut down water intake pipes, as precautionary measures at the Kootenai Tribe’s Twin Rivers Hatchery on the Moyie-Kootenai rivers confluence. On Friday, January 3, Boundary County declared a state of emergency and closed the Kootenai River for a week, and then extended the emergency order until February 8 on Monday, January 6, banning all motorized, public boat traffic from the Montana border eight miles upstream of the derailment, to Bonners Ferry eight miles down-current. Belatedly on January 4, Boundary County issued a water quality advisory cautioning residents against direct, river water use during derailment “clean-up” operations. Officials say that the diesel-polluted water is not flammable and does not endanger public health, safety, and drinking water supplies.
Regulating and documenting derailment impacts, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has concluded its incident oversight, calling the spill “minor,” although divers recovered only water from the BNSF locomotive fuel tank and crank case in the river last week, which together held between 2,100 and 5,200 gallons. Spokane television news reporters earlier noticed and videoed oily sheens on the river in Bonners Ferry, among 6,200-plus feet of containment boom placed in the waterway. But the EPA, Idaho Department of Environmental Quality, and Boundary County are testing water every 24 hours in six places, and allowing BNSF employees and contractors to conduct river water sampling for pollution, an activity obviously conflicted by railroad avoidance of fines and legal challenges, not to mention its operation and profit motives that risk further catastrophes.
Do you remember regional citizens’ concerns, during the initial, 2010-11 years of resistance to tar sands mining and refining megaloads on U.S. Highway 12, about a megaload tumbling into the wild and scenic Lochsa and Clearwater rivers and Nez Perce Reservation waters? Predictably, it has happened (again!) in north Idaho, except the megaload is one of hundreds of diesel-spewing, half-million-pound locomotives that daily rampage the shores of three Columbia River basin watersheds — the Kootenai, Pend Oreille, and Spokane — hauling loads as benign as lumber and grain and as deadly as Bakken crude, Canadian tar sands, and other hazardous substances. The same fossil fuels pipeline-on-rails perpetrator that WIRT and #No2ndBridge activists and recently issue-mute, bigger green allies have opposed for its bridge and track expansion over Lake Pend Oreille and Sandpoint, BNSF still has not and perhaps cannot carefully remove its submerged locomotive from the Kootenai River. Without contingency plans for similar, future predicaments, the corporate interloper may abandon its megaload until spring and drag it across the river to sand bars, to dismantle and float it downstream for scrap. Potentially culpable for worker endangerment, river contamination, and indigenous, rare fisheries ruin, BNSF could have prevented or alerted the derailed train operators of the rockslide that caused the wreck, if it had replaced a rock barrier and warning fence in the derailment area, which it removed during rail corridor maintenance several years earlier.
While reviewing, writing, and sharing daily media and WIRT activist articles, insights, and site visit photos during the last few weeks, WIRT has been overwhelmed by grief, outrage, and the voluminous but fact-vacuous, media information about this Kootenai River derailment. BNSF assumes that the mostly complicit Panhandle inhabitants who bear the ongoing pollution and disaster risks of this multi-billion-dollar business will not ask questions or challenge its false narratives or remember its snafus that increasingly offer evidence unfavorable to its Northwest infrastructure and operations expansions. But WIRT is determined to continue our investigation of this instance of inevitable derailments, and to insist that local, state, and federal agencies protect the public trust and watersheds by collecting and analyzing independent data on water quality degraded by the railroad industry. Please contact us if you can assist with ground-truthing the environmental impacts of this corporate crime scene in a canyon constrained by steep cliffs, forested private lands, and the BNSF-requested, extended river closure. We also intend to gather and condense our continuing facebook posts about this situation into an emailed and website-shared newsletter. For now, we have linked those posts and their embedded news articles through this ever-expanding photo compilation: