Cleanup begins after asphalt binder spills into Montana’s Yellowstone River after train derailment

HELEN, Mont. (AP) – Asphalt binder drops that spilled into Montana’s Yellowstone River during a bridge collapse and train derailment could be seen on islands and riverbanks downstream of the Yellowstone National Park a week after the spill, witnesses report.

Environmental Protection Agency officials said cleanup efforts began on Sunday, with workers cooling the gooey material with river water, rolling it up and putting the globes in garbage bags. It will likely be recycled, Paul Peronard told the EPA.

Alexis Bonogofsky, whose family ranch was hit by an oil spill on the Yellowstone River near Billings in 2011, took photos Saturday of the refined petroleum product covering rocks and sandbars. She also took an image of a dead bird in the black stuff.

“This kite went through the asphalt, which had warmed up in the sun, and it got stuck and died with its head buried in the asphalt,” Bonogofsky wrote in the caption of an image she shared. posted on social media. “You could tell where he tried to retreat to.

A bridge over the river collapsed when a train crossed it early June 24 near the city of Columbus and 10 cars fell into the water, spilling liquid asphalt and molten sulfur, said officials. Both materials were expected to cool and harden when exposed to cold water, and officials said there was no threat to the public or downstream water supplies, officials said.

However, the bituminous binder behaved differently.

“This stuff doesn’t sink in that water,” Peronard said Sunday. “It sticks very well to rock and we can roll it up like taffy on sand.”

Bonogofsky, in another of his photos, captured a sparkle on the water. She said the spilled material had warmed up with warmer temperatures and “you can feel it”.

The Montana Department of Environmental Quality, EPA and Montana Rail Link — the entities managing the cleanup — said more asphalt product was released Friday as a railcar was pulled from the river.

“Early assessments indicate that the release was minimal based on the amount of material that would still remain in the impacted car,” the statement said.

Professor Kayhan Ostovar of Rocky Mountain College’s Yellowstone River Research Center also took photos on Friday of the petroleum product that had washed up on the bank about 10 kilometers downstream from the spill.

Ostevar’s team conducted turtle surveys under the derailment and are sharing GPS locations of sensitive sites that are near areas where the asphalt binder has come to rest.

Turtles are particularly vulnerable to this type of spill, Ostovar said, because they leave the water at this time to search for nesting sites on gravel bars and bask in the sun.

The center was created after the ExxonMobil pipeline ruptured in 2011 to gather better baseline information on species of concern that live in and around the Yellowstone River.

Statements from the agencies and the railroad over the past week asked people to report sightings of asphalt material on the bank via email to, and listed a phone number – 888-275-6926 – for oiled wildlife. Care Network to report animals with oil on them.

No reports from the public have been received, Peronard said.

Bonogofsky argued that it shouldn’t have taken more than a week to come up with a cleanup plan, especially since it’s known what materials the trains are carrying through Montana, as well as the damage caused by the 2011 pipeline spill.

“We should have had plans in place for this and we should have learned our lesson in 2011,” she said, saying the asphalt binder cleanup work could have taken place at the same time as they pulled the wagons out of the water.

The last of the wagons was due to be removed from the water on Sunday, Peronard said, while agricultural users were told they could resume using river water for irrigation. Their irrigation canals had been closed as a precaution.

Cleaning up petroleum product spills is “a bit of a losing game,” Peronard said. “We’re never going to recover all the oil here…and there will likely be impacts when we’re done. It’s unavoidable.”

Regarding the cleanup timeframe, he said the response to any accident begins with protecting human lives, controlling the source of the spill, and then protecting the environment. He said the agency also needed to make sure its cleanup plan didn’t cause more harm than good to bird and turtle nests in the area.

Cleanup crews should also stay at least half a mile away from eagles nesting in the area, Peronard said.

The spilled asphalt material is not water soluble, he said.

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