Whitefish residents near rail yard to test for toxins

(The Associated Press circulated the following story on May 7, 2009.)

WHITEFISH, Mont. - Some Whitefish residents with property near a Burlington Northern Santa Fe 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."