The Key Difference Between Montana Rail Link and Norfolk Southern: LUCK

Following a plethora of toxic derailments nationwide, Montana Rail Link lucked out after one of their trains careened off the rails and onto the banks of the Clark Fork River last week. It was initially reported that an unknown substance was leaking into the river following a derailment near Paradise, Montana on the morning of Sunday, 02 April 2023. Sanders County authorities were alerted at 9:20 a.m. on Sunday morning that an incident had occurred near mile marker 19 of Montana Highway 135.

At least 18 rail cars stacked up against a tunnel entrance directly across the river from Quinn’s Hot Springs Resort. Guests of the resort staying in the waterfront cabins were temporarily evacuated as a precautionary measure. At least 2 chemical tanker cars derailed with one tipped over on the tracks and one stuck in the mouth of the tunnel. Workers struggled through the week to free the cars that went off track within the confines of the tunnel. Images show steam rising from the derailment site where heavy machinery works on the cliffs above and a crew dressed in orange floating along the river in an inflatable boat. Surveillance footage from Quinn’s Resort shows the cars piling up and falling down the steep banks toward the river at around 9 am.

While the train had been transporting hazardous materials in chemical tanker cars, only a tanker of butane came off the rails and it did not emit any of its contents into the environment. The spill was limited to powdered bentonite clay and cases of beer, in both bottles and cans. While a small amount of diesel fuel spilled onto the soil near the tracks, it wasn’t from a tanker car but from refrigerator cars with diesel-powered generators that became damaged in the pile up.

Amid a plague of toxic derailments all over the country that daily worsen an ongoing contamination nightmare, Montana Rail Link lucked out big time. The Clark Fork isn’t a small creek, and the location of this derailment happens to exist just a few miles upriver from its intersection with the Flathead River on its way to Lake Pend Oreille, the Columbia River, Portland and finally the Pacific.

History doesn’t repeat, but it does rhyme. As reported by The Missoulian, an eerily similar scenario played out along the same segment of river over two decades ago:

Amid sweltering temperatures on July 11, 1999, a heat-warped rail derailed an MRL freight train between Paradise and Plains, only a couple miles downstream of Sunday’s derailment. As happened Sunday, the 1999 derailment also sent thousands of Coors Light beers floating down the very same river, until a boom was deployed to contain them. The 1999 derailment also involved a tank car of liquefied petroleum gas — in that instance propane — that derailed but did not rupture. … However, unlike Sunday’s derailment, the 1999 incident sent about 20,000 gallons of scorching hot liquid asphalt into the Clark Fork. And that derailment caused a two-acre grass fire that took more than 30 firefighters to extinguish.

Considering the liquid asphalt spill and subsequent fire that resulted from the 1999 derailment, Montana Rail Link didn’t just luck out last Sunday. They hit the proverbial jackpot, sustaining minimal damage to their reputation by inflicting zero demonstrable harm to the environment. But how long are we just going to run on luck? It seems rather pathetic that a culture with our technology doesn’t regard derailments as a rare or easily correctable phenomenon. To the contrary, the news of the day wants us all to believe that they’re not only normal, but also innocuous. The incident almost feels like a kind of sponsored content piece for beer companies to enjoy free advertising.

If that train had come off the tracks just a few cars earlier than it did, the butane tankers would likely have been damaged and begun leaking into the river. What kind of behavior could we expect from the industry at that point?

For starters, if anything toxic were ever released into the environment at this location, Quinn’s Hot Springs Resort would be forced to close their doors because nobody wants their trip to the spa to leave them feeling sick from chemical exposure. While it’s true that the Clark Fork River might already be polluted with hexavalent Chromium and other contaminants from the Butte superfund site upriver, that doesn’t justify minimizing the further poisoning of our watersheds. It should be a top priority to keep them from becoming further polluted, because it takes a lot longer to clean them up than it does to contaminate them.

Because Earth’s river systems have settled into mountains with gradual and winding curves, the modern rail system could not exist without the ancient river networks due to the navigational limitations of locomotives. Since freight trains are designed to haul gargantuan proportions of tonnage, they cannot safely climb or descend steep grades. But in this era of chemical carelessness, most of the country’s rail now directly threatens local watersheds because chemical spills are tragically becoming more and more commonplace.

How do the owners of Quinn’s Resort feel knowing that a chemical smell emanating from the river could cripple their business? How anyone feels after realizing a monopoly industry can poison entire communities and ecosystems with impunity.

Rail Link got lucky this time, but how long can they maintain their streak? It seems obvious that it’s only a matter of time before we can all expect another derailment. Since America sustains three derailments a day and a major chemical spill every other day, more chemical disasters seem like an inevitability. Even after the catastrophe in Ohio permanently contaminated a large area with forever chemicals, nobody in the industry is sincerely considering updating America’s crumbling, Civil War era rail system. We’re left asking when the next derailment will happen, where the next chemical spill might occur, and what kind of chemicals we can expect to be released next time. Because there will definitely be a next time. It’s just a matter of how long we have to wait.