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BNSF monitors new groundwater contamination in N. Havre


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Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad has begun a project to prevent a contaminant found last summer in groundwater from reaching North Havre's drinking water.

Kate Fry of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality said today that vinyl chloride, a compound associated with chlorine solvents sometimes used by railroads, has been detected in the groundwater in North Havre at levels above Montana water quality standards. None has been found in sampled drinking water, she said.

"It is a concern," she said.

The DEQ standard for vinyl chloride states that 2 parts per billion or higher is unacceptable. While none was found in residents' wells in September, a BNSF investigations over the summer found levels as high as 35 parts per billion in the groundwater, Fry said.

The high level of vinyl chloride was not widespread in the groundwater, she added, and was found at some depths but not at others.

BNSF has proposed a two-part plan to reduce the chance of North Havre's drinking water becoming contaminated above acceptable levels, Fry said.

The first, which DEQ has approved, is to drill horizontal wells, which is being done on the 200 block of 11th Avenue North.

In the second phase, the railroad would fill the wells with sodium lactate, a substance that could speed up the degradation of the chlorides into less dangerous compounds. DEQ hasn't approved that phase, Fry said.

"We've asked for some additional information before approving injection," she said.

Other compounds have been proposed or used in similar projects in Montana, Fry said. While sodium lactate has been used in other states, she said that to her knowledge this is the first time it's been proposed in Montana.

DEQ wants more information showing the effectiveness of sodium lactate in degrading vinyl chloride before it makes a decision, Fry said.

Testing over the summer revealed the unacceptable levels in the groundwater, but tests by BNSF of drinking water in North Havre showed no contamination, Fry said.

"The September testing indicates that the vinyl chlorides and other compounds have not impacted water wells," she said.

DEQ is requiring the railroad to conduct quarterly tests of the drinking water, she added. The next tests are scheduled for December.

Vinyl chloride has been detected near the railyard before, but this summer was the first time it was detected in North Havre's groundwater, Fry said.

This is not the first time BNSF has been involved in monitoring water contamination in North Havre. Compounds associated with diesel fuel were detected in the water several years ago, and DEQ required the company to monitor and treat the problem, Fry said.

Gus Melonas, spokesman for BNSF, said the railroad has had other projects in North Havre to remediate water problems associated with railroads.

"We have had continuous, ongoing monitoring and remediation and recovery over the years," he said.

BNSF is doing other construction in North Havre related to water quality. Work is under way to upgrade the company's wastewater treatment plant.

The work on the wastewater treatment plant is part of an effort to improve the quality of the water the railroad releases to the Havre wastewater treatment plant. BNSF has budgeted about $3.8 million in 2002-2003 for the work on the Havre yard's plant, Melonas said.

This is the second phase in an upgrade on the plant, which began in 1998.

The plant work includes removing old equipment and replacing it with state-of-the-art computerized equipment, Melonas said. New offices, storage facilities and automated laboratories are also part of the project.

The project is expected to be completed by August or September.


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