COLUMBUS, Mont. (AP) — Authorities on Sunday were testing water quality in a stretch of the Yellowstone River where cars containing hazardous materials were found after they crashed into the waterway following a bridge collapse.
Seven train cars carrying hot asphalt and molten sulfur fell into a fast-moving river Saturday morning near the city of Columbus, about 40 miles (about 64 kilometers) west of Billings. The area is in a less populated part of the Yellowstone River Valley, surrounded by farms and farmland.
Water testing began Saturday and will continue as crews work to remove the cars, Andy Garland, a spokesman for train operator Montana Rail Link, said in a statement Sunday. Montana Rail Link said it is working with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality and the federal Environmental Protection Agency on cleanup, removal and restoration efforts.
“Montana Rail Link is committed to addressing potential impacts to the area as a result of this incident,” he said.
The extent of the spill and the risk to people who rely on the river for drinking and irrigation are not yet known, said David Samey, chief of Stillwater County Disaster and Emergency Services. Samey said the water testing is being done by the EPA and state regulators.
However, Garland said both fresh asphalt and molten sulfur harden and solidify quickly when mixed with water, and modeling suggests the substance can’t sink too far down.
Crews were still trying to figure out the best way to remove the cars because the wreck was so extensive and the cars were so badly damaged, Same said.
The Yellowstone Flood in 2022 caused significant damage to Yellowstone National Park and neighboring towns in Montana. The river where the bridge collapsed is 110 miles (177 km) southwest of Yellowstone National Park.
Robert Bea, a retired engineering professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who has analyzed the causes of hundreds of major disasters, points to years of repeated heavy river flows.
“The high water flow directly translates to high forces acting on the pier and especially on the bottom of the river,” Bea said on Saturday. “You may have soil erosion or erosion that removes support from the foundation. High forces translate into a high probability of structural or foundation failure that can act as a trigger to trigger the disaster.”
An old highway bridge that runs parallel to the railroad bridge — together, called the Twin Bridges — was removed in 2021 after the Montana Department of Transportation determined it was in danger of collapsing. The railroad bridge is inspected twice a year, and the most recent inspection was in May, Garland said.