By Tim Leeds/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway has bought the right to have the first opportunity to purchase at least 75 properties in North Havre since July. The railroad has already purchased 15 of those properties.
Most of the rights of first purchase involved people who had sued the railroad over contamination to groundwater and reached a settlement with the railroad in July.
The first right of first purchase was filed with the Hill County Clerk and Recorders two weeks after the settlement. A right of first purchase means that if the landowner decides to sell, the railroad gets the first chance to make the purchase.
Terms of the settlement were kept confidential and landowners have declined to say whether the agreements are part of the settlement.
BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas left a voicemail for a Havre Daily News reporting Thursday evening saying: "BNSF is purchasing property in North Havre regarding settlement of an earlier lawsuit."
He said today he couldn't say whether the lawsuit he was referring to was the one settled with the North Havre landowners and residents.
Venise Rosenberry sold four lots she owned in North Havre to BNSF on Dec. 11.
Rosenberry said she was glad to be rid of the property and was satisfied with the sale to BNSF.
Rosenberry didn't live on the property, and after she sold it she moved three mobile homes that were on it. A house remains.
She had always planned to make improvements to the property, but the contaminated water under it made that impractical, she said.
The lawsuit filed by about 80 North Havre landowners alleged that BNSF had damaged the plaintiffs' mental and physical health and reduced the value of their property by allowing diesel fuel and other contaminants to spill onto the ground in its railyard and seep into the groundwater under parts of North Havre.
Since Aug. 18, BNSF has purchased 15 properties in North Havre. Of those, nine were from people who had right of first purchase agreements with the railroad.
Betty Ann Morgan, a co-owner of Property West, said her company has an agreement to be the main real estate company for BNSF, although other real estate offices are also involved in sales of property to the railroad.
Morgan said her company is putting the sale agreements together and taking them to BNSF for the railroad company to consider. All transactions are with willing sellers, she said.
She said the value of the properties is being determined as though they were in Havre south of the railroad tracks, avoiding the reduced value due to water contamination.
"It's been a very positive thing," she said.
The state Department of Environmental Quality has reported a plume of contaminants, including diesel fuel, solvents and other chemicals, in the groundwater between the railroad tracks and the Milk River. Most of the chemicals are associated with railroads. DEQ estimates that as much as 1.5 million gallons of diesel fuel that spilled or leaked at the railroad yards in North Havre seeped into the groundwater between the 1940s and 1970s.
The railroad has been working with DEQ since the 1980s to reduce the contamination.
New contamination associated with a solvent used by railroads was detected in 2002. The railroad is negotiating with DEQ on a proposal to mitigate that contamination.
BNSF also supplies bottled water to people in North Havre between the railroad tracks and the Milk River.
Jo Ann Brekhus, who has lived in North Havre for 30 years, said she didn't pay much attention when BNSF first contacted her about three years ago to discuss buying her property.
At that time, she added, BNSF was talking to everyone who lived in the area.
She said that when she was contacted by someone interested in buying the property this winter, she declined again. She doesn't know if that person represented the railroad, she said.
"I was out chipping ice and one of them came by," Brekhus said. "I told him no and he said he would come back later to see if I had changed my mind."
Ed and Wanda O'Donnell of North Havre said they have been contacted by BNSF, but don't know if they want to sell. The railroad has bought several of their neighbors' houses, including one their son, Ken O'Donnell, was thinking of purchasing.
"(The owner) got more from the railroad than our son offered," Ed O'Donnell said.
She said she and her husband aren't sure if they will move, although taking care of their home is getting to be a little too much work for him.
Ed O'Donnell said he has lived in North Havre for 70 years. He built the house they now live in, next door to the house he grew up in.
He said he had a well drilled about 85 feet deep some 23 years ago, and the water doesn't bother him, although Wanda O'Donnell drinks the bottled water they receive through BNSF.
"I drink it," he said. "I could drink two gallons of that stuff every day and never get rid of my thirst."
Daily News photographer A.R. D'Hooge contributed to this story.