On the evening of Sunday, August 13, 2017, a Montana Rail Link (MRL) coal train jumped the tracks and dumped more than 3,500 tons of coal along the riverbank of the Cabinet Gorge Reservoir near Noxon, Montana. The train was heading west towards Lake Pend Oreille along the Clark Fork River with 120 cars fully loaded with dirty and dangerous coal. Thirty of these cars became entangled and dumped coal along the river bank and into the river, which is the main tributary of Lake Pend Oreille.
It took 2 days for the tracks to be cleared and reopened to rail traffic. The Federal Rail Administration (FRA) classifies coal as a non-hazardous commodity, but there has been multiple scientific studies that show the negative effects of unburned coal on aquatic ecosystems. The safety data sheet for bituminous coal warns that exposure to spilled coal may be irritating or harmful, causing eye irritation and potentially damaging organs due to prolonged or repeated exposure. Coal should not be left out in our pristine wilderness, let alone transported thousands of miles through hundreds of communities.
A few days after the derailment, the coal that was left on the riverbank began to self-combust and smolder twice. Thankfully, MRL workers were able to put out the smolders before it became uncontrollable. It took 5 weeks until MRL finally made a significant effort to clean up the mess from the train derailment. This kind of fire danger should have been taken care of right away, not weeks later. Railway companies need to take immediate action in the case of any accident, whether it’s a fire danger or not. But for this accident, there was complete lack of regard for the safety of our community and the environment.