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First wildlife death reported as result of Stillwater County train derailment

First wildlife death reported as result of Stillwater County train derailment
Posted at 7:16 PM, Jul 02, 2023
and last updated 2023-07-03 12:42:27-04

As train cars continue to be removed from the Yellowstone River over a week after a bridge collapsed and a train derailed in Stillwater County, an eastern Montana photographer recently raised concerns about the contents found downstream.

After boating upstream as far as she could toward the derailment, Alexis Bonogofsky captured many photos of the asphalt along the river's shoreline. She posted the pictures to social media to try to spread more awareness about the situation.

Asphalt along Yellowstone River

“I care about the Yellowstone River and wildlife. I’ve lived here my whole life and it matters to me how we treat the river and the ecosystem that we have responsibility for,” Bonogofsky said on Sunday. "There’s asphalt everywhere. It’s covering rocks. It’s stuck in willows. It's inside channels. It's accumulated on trees on higher gravel banks.”

While exploring the small islands in the river, Bonogofsky found dead wildlife stuck in the asphalt.

Killdeer stuck in asphalt along Yellowstone River

"As (the asphalt) warms up, it's sticky and you can see all these bird tracks around it," she said. "You look closer and there’s a killdeer that had gotten stuck and smothered itself basically in the asphalt. And you could tell where it had gone in and tried to keep picking its feet up and eventually it just couldn’t anymore.”

Asphalt downstream from Stillwater County train derailment

In a press release, officials confirmed the finding of the animal was the first found death of wildlife from the spilled train cars:

The Oiled Wildlife Care Network investigated the location and found the dead bird. Oiled Wildlife Care teams continue assessment of the riverbanks for oiled wildlife. Anyone with information about oiled wildlife are encouraged to call the Oiled Wildlife Care Network (OWCN) Response Hotline at 888-ASK-OWCN (888-275-6926) and provide the animal’s location, time last seen, and your contact information.

“Our team remains concerned and diligent to find any impacts to wildlife. We have been actively assessing the river and began removing the asphalt materials to help mitigate impacts to wildlife,” said the Incident Commander for Montana Department of Environmental Quality, Chad Anderson. “Please call the hotline to report any observed impacts, we have crews available to investigate and veterinarians available to help impacted wildlife.”

Earlier this week, teams assessed the shoreline for impacts and determined the most feasible process for removal of asphalt materials. The process will be improved as the cleanup progresses. Today shoreline cleanup teams went out on the water to begin removing the asphalt material along the shoreline. Cleanup is focused on minimizing impacts to sensitive ecosystems and wildlife. Teams will target areas anticipated to have the most product based on analysis of river flow. Unified Command is setting up disposal drop points and a process for the public who would like to remove the material on their property and dispose of it. More information and a map of drop locations will follow.

Bonogofsky did not report her findings to the United States Environmental Protection Agency because she said she has experienced working with them during the 2011 oil spill from a break in a 12-inch pipeline owned by ExxonMobil. The oil from that spill got onto her property.

"My experience from the 2011 Exxon oil spill is that the best way to get action is to alert the public with what is happening,” she said. “(The EPA) should know, they have experience in these spills. They should have been on those islands walking those islands. It’s not hard to find. You get off your boat and you walk along the edge and you see it."

Asphalt over river rock

Bonogofsky said she's frustrated with the timeline of the cleanup process along the shoreline downstream from the derailment. She believes it should have started sooner than eight days after the disaster initially occurred.

“I could have been cleaning it up yesterday with shovels and buckets. The cleanup should have started immediately. I don’t think we as the public should have to choose between the immediate removal of trains and a cleanup. I think it can happen concurrently.”