Water is being tested where a freight train carrying hazardous materials plunged into the Yellowstone River

COLUMBUS, Mont. (AP) – Authorities on Sunday tested water quality along a stretch of the Yellowstone River where mangled cars carrying hazardous materials remained after crashing into the waterway following the collapse of a bridge.

Seven train cars carrying hot asphalt and molten sulfur fell into the rushing river Saturday morning near the town of Columbus, about 40 miles (about 64 kilometers) west of Billings. The area is in a sparsely populated section of the Yellowstone River Valley, surrounded by ranches and farmland.

Water testing began Saturday and will continue as crews work to remove the railcars, a spokesman for train operator Montana Rail Link, Andy Garland, said in a statement Sunday. Montana Rail Link was working with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality and the Federal Environmental Protection Agency on cleanup, removal and restoration efforts, he said.

“Montana Rail Link remains committed to addressing any potential impact to the region as a result of this incident,” he said.

The amount of cargo that spilled into the river and the danger it poses to those who depend on the river for drinking and irrigation are still unknown, said David Samey, head of disaster and emergency services of Stillwater County. Samey said water testing is done by the EPA and state regulators.

However, Garland said hot asphalt and molten sulfur harden and solidify quickly when mixed with water and modeling suggests the substances are not likely to travel very far downstream.

Crews were still trying to figure out the best way to remove the cars because the crash was so big and there was a lot of damage to the cars, Samey said.

Yellowstone experienced record flooding in 2022 that caused extensive damage to Yellowstone National Park and adjacent towns in Montana. The river where the bridge collapsed flows out of Yellowstone National Park, which is about 177 kilometers to the southwest.

Robert Bea, a retired engineering professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who has analyzed the causes of hundreds of major disasters, said repeated years of high river flows provided a clue to the possible cause.

“The high water flow results in high forces acting directly on the jetty and, more importantly, on the river bottom,” Bea said Saturday. “You may have erosion or scour that removes support from the foundation. High forces translate to a high probability of structural or foundation failure that could act as a trigger to trigger the accident.

An old highway bridge that parallels the railroad bridge — together they were called the Twin Bridges — was removed in 2021 after the Montana Department of Transportation determined it was in imminent danger of collapsing. The rail bridge is inspected twice a year, and the most recent inspection was in May, Garland said.

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