Whitefish residents to test for contamination

The Associated Press
Posted May 05, 2009 @ 06:12 PM


WHITEFISH, Mont. -

Some Whitefish residents with property near a BNSF rail yard have hired an attorney and plan to test for toxins after BNSF started offering to buy property near the rail yard.

In an April 27 letter to Whitefish city officials, the Billings firm of Edwards, Frickle and Culver said it had been "retained by several Whitefish citizens to represent them regarding the potential migration of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway's toxic plumes."

The firm is "in the process of investigating and testing the soil and groundwater near the rail yard to independently determine the plumes' boundaries and the migration route," according to the letter written by Chris Edwards, son of Cliff Edwards, who won a $14.2 million judgment against BNSF in Park County.

A recent Montana Supreme Court decision has increased the railroad's potential liability in a pollution case. Citizens can now sue and recover cleanup costs well beyond the value of their property.

A BNSF spokesman said the company has no information suggesting plumes of groundwater contaminated with spilled diesel fuel and chemical solvents have moved. The railroad monitors the pollution itself, reporting to the Department of Environmental Quality.

Spokesman Gus Melonas said BNSF does not have the details on Edwards' planned environmental review.

Melonas said the company has been making offers to neighbors because it "merely determined that it may be constructive and helpful for everyone to discuss various economic options related to property in the area."

The Edwards firm thinks there's more to it.

"Their actions only mean one thing - BNSF knows their toxic plumes have migrated or are migrating off of BNSF's property onto residential and business properties," Chris Edwards' letter reads.

If the railroad neighborhood is clean, but the plume is moving toward it, then lawyers may be able to force BNSF to speed its cleanup process. If it's not clean, property owners may be able to sue for damages and cleanup costs. And if things are fine, homeowners could still argue that BNSF has hurt their property values by suggesting there is contamination where there is none.

In any case, Whitefish City Attorney John Phelps said the investment in monitoring wells appears to set the stage for potential litigation against BNSF.

BNSF denied requests by the Department of Environmental Quality and the Missoulian for a list of households the company contacted.