The water quality for a portion of the Yellowstone River is being tested after several train cars that were carrying some hazardous materials crashed into it over the weekend.
On Saturday morning, a bridge collapsed near Columbus, Montana, a small town located about 40 miles west of the city of Billings. The region isn’t very populated at all and is near the Yellowstone River Valley, with farmlands and ranches surrounding it.
Seven different train cars fell into the river after the bridge collapsed, and all of those trains were carrying molten sulfur and hot asphalt.
According to Andy Garland, a spokesperson for Montana Rail Link, the company that operated the train, said that it began testing the water on Saturday, and it will continue to do so while crews work on removing the train cars from the river.
Garland added that the company was working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as well as the Montana Department of Environmental Quality for the removal, cleanup and restoration of the area. As he said in a statement:
“Montana Rail Link remains committed to addressing any potential impacts to the area as a result of this incident.”
Stillwater County Disaster and Emergency Services’ head David Samey said recently that they still don’t know how much of the cargo actually spilled into the river nor what danger it might pose to people who rely on the waterway for irrigation and drinking.
He added that state regulators and the EPA were the ones who were handling all the water testing at that portion of the Yellowstone River.
Garland did say, though, that molten sulfur and asphalt both harden and then solidify rather quickly when they are mixed with water. Modeling that the company has done suggests these substances likely will not be taken far downstream in the river.
Samsey added that the cars suffered a lot of damage due to the bridge collapse, and crews were figuring out the best option for how to remove the cars safely and effectively.
The portion of the river where the bridge collapse happens doesn’t flow toward Yellowstone Park. It’s located roughly 110 miles away from the site of the bridge collapse, to the southwest.
Retired University of California Berkeley engineering professor Robert Bea said that heavy river flows that have happened in recent years over and over provide a clue to what might have caused the bridge collapse. He said over the weekend:
“The high water flow translates to high forces acting directly on the pier and, importantly, on the river bottom. You can have erosion or scour that removes support from the foundation. High forces translate to a high likelihood of a structural or foundation failure that could act as a trigger to initiate the accident.”
In 2021, the Montana Department of Transportation determined that a highway bridge that ran parallel to that railway bridge needed to be taken down because it was very likely to fall.
The railroad bridge that collapsed is inspected two times every year, with the last inspection happening in May, according to Garland.