Havre Daily News
First Street in downtown Havre bears scant resemblance to the city as it was 35 years ago. Fires and a building's collapse since the mid-1970s cleared the buildings on the south side of First Street between Third and Fourth avenues. The buildings on the north side of First Street between Second and Third avenues were cleared for the construction of a bank building, now U.S. Bank.
Some area residents now are concerned that BNSF Railway's efforts to buy up contaminated property in the 300 block between First and Main streets could remove even more of Havre's historic facade.
The situation is similar to one in another Montana railroad town. BNSF is trying to buy up property in Livingston that sits atop a diesel plume near the railroad shops. A resident of that area said a BNSF official told him the property would be bulldozed.
BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas has refused to comment on the railroad's plans for the Havre block or any other downtown property.
“We are continuing our remediation program, removing identified product,” Melonas said in a telephone message on Dec. 6. “A part of our approach in remediating the Havre site includes exploring properties for purchase, in addition to property that we have already purchased, and as you can say, to enable BNSF to effectively manage this ongoing environmental process. So, there's all the information that I have at this point.”
He declined to comment further Thursday.
All but three owners have sold their buildings to BNSF or reached a right of first option to purchase with the railway.
The three holdouts - Jerry Bergren, Russell DeVries and Kurt Johnson - all filed lawsuits against BNSF. Their cases are scheduled for a settlement conference before U.S. Distrist Judge Carolyn S. Ostby at 9 a.m. Monday in Billings.
None of the three would comment on the lawsuits. When asked about BNSF's plans, DeVries said, “Only the Burlington Northern knows what's going to happen.” BNSF has purchased three properties in the 300 block of First Street since 2000 and recently gained the right of first option to purchase two others. The right of first option puts the railroad first in line if the propert is ever sold.
“Some people in discussions we've had had a fear that the railroad is going to tear all the property down and make a parking lot,” Havre City Council member Terry Schend said. “I really don't have a feeling one way or the other. I kind of want to see how it comes out.
“For some reason, I doubt they'll do that, because they could get a black eye over the whole thing,” Schend added. “I can't imagine the railroad feeling that way about the property. They're part of the community, and I think they have sense.”
Schend said the underground pollution might make it nearly impossible for the owners to sell to anyone else.
“The stuff below the ground could be there for eons, and maybe no one would want to own that property for eons,” he said.
BNSF is attempting to buy up property that has been shown to be polluted by seepage of diesel fuel from its Havre rail yard. The state Department of Environmental Quality has been monitoring the site since plumes of fuel were discovered adjacent to the railroad in North Havre and along Main Street that fronts the railroad tracks in downtown Havre.
BNSF sold its southern line, where Livingston served the same purpose as Havre on the northern line, in 1986, but remains responsible for cleaning up the ground pollution it caused in the past. There, the BNSF is trying to buy up 20 homes and some businesses.
BNSF settled a lawsuit filed on behalf of about 80 property owners in North Havre in March 2004 and began purchasing or getting the right of first refusal for properties there.
The principle spill south of the tracks forms a triangle that includes the 300 block of First and Main streets, said Kate Fry, project manager for the DEQ. It extends from the northeast corner of the U.S. Bank block southeast across First Street to the middle of the alley behind the Town Square and then runs northeast to the corner of Main Street and Fifth Avenue, she said.
BNSF and firms hired by those suing the railroad are keeping tabs on numerous monitoring wells they've drilled in the area, she said.
Fry said the railroad is making headway on the plume.
“Right now, it's been stabilized, and they do have a number of recovery wells on the rail yard just north above that area,” Fry said. “It's a total fluids recovery system. They pump the fluids out and separate the diesel from the water. They can recycle the diesel and the water goes through the wastewater treatment plant.”
She said the principle contaminants are benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene and xylenes.
“Those four constituents are fairly common additives in petroleum products,” she said. “You usually see them in gasoline, but you can sometimes find them in diesel.”
Fry said little data exist on the extent of soil contamination in the area. Most of the contamination in the affected downtown area is limited to the groundwater, either in solution or as a free agent that hasn't dissolved in the water. She said the free agent contamination doesn't “go much beyond Main Street.”
She said it's likely that some soil contamination exists where the contaminated groundwater meets the soil, but efforts to measure and deal with soil contamination are not the immediate concern.
“The first thing they would do is take care of the contamination of the groundwater,” Fry said. “There are a number of things you can do (with contaminated soil). We're not at the point of discussing it at the rail yard yet.”
Fry said that tearing down the buildings and digging up the soil would be the expensive way to deal with any soil contamination when the time comes. She said a more economic method is called soil vacuum extraction, in which air is poked into the ground and the contamination is sucked out with a vacuum.
“When we look at remediation, we also look at feasibility and cost,” she said. “Knocking down the buildings and digging up the soil runs up the cost.”
With vacuuming, she said, “you're not upsetting a business or a home or what have you.”
The railway bought the vacant building just east of Master Sports in December 2000. BNSF's purchase of the building that Master Sports has leased for decades was filed with the Hill County Clerk and Recorder's Office in October 2003. The railway's latest acquisition was the building that houses 1st Street Main Attraction Hair Salon and the Kleen Kut Barber Shop, which it bought on Sept. 28, 2004.
Since then, BNSF has acquired the right of first refusal for Shamrocks Bar and Casino. The right of first refusal was filed with the county on Aug. 11. A lawsuit filed by the building's owners, John and Modesty Caven, against BNSF was dismissed by state District Judge David Rice on Aug. 17 because the two sides reached an agreement. The Cavens did not return a phone call seeking comment.
Hi-Line Radio Fellowship Inc., operators of radio station KXEI, agreed to a right of first refusal with BNSF on Aug. 18. The station had not sued BNSF.
“We would never do that. The only thing we did was, if we ever sell the building, they have the first right to buy,” said Ed Matter, general manager of the radio station. “We never approached the railroad; they came to us.”
None of the owners or lease holders who would comment about the railroad's activities anticipate demolition of the block.
“We got an open-ended lease,” said Bob Evans, who along with his brother Alan recently bought Master Sports from their father. “We were certainly happy to stay. I know what this block means to Havre. It is the core of the town. They're not taking this building away from Havre.
“I have nothing but positive things to say. The BN was good to us because they allowed us to stay,” he added.
The two principle owners on the 400 block of First Street whose property lies within the triangle said they have had no problems with the diesel spill.
Mike Hamilton, who owns Creative Leisure Inc. and the building it occupies, said he was shown a map that indicated the diesel plume barely skirts the northwest corner of his parking lot and then proceeds east under Main Street.
Jim Griggs at Griggs Printing owns his building, too, and said he'd be more worried about contaminated soil left by the gasoline stations that used to occupy three of the four corners of Fifth Avenue and First Street than about pollution from the railroad. He said three test wells to monitor the plume dot Main Street right behind his building, but his building is unaffected.
“I haven't had any leakage,” Griggs said. “I have seen no areas of leakage since everyone started talking about it.
“They're all concerned about BN, but I would think the gas stations would be a concern.”