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Tuesday, February 18, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Idaho

Railroad should reopen on Saturday after rock slide; 1 locomotive still in Kootenai River

UPDATED: Fri., Jan. 3, 2020

In this photo taken by a U.S. Border Patrol agent, two Boundary County sheriff’s deputies and an ambulance paramedic rescue two train operators from atop a sinking locomotive in the Kootenai River on Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2020. The train derailed into the river after a rock slide damaged the tracks about 10 miles east of Bonners Ferry. (Boundary County Emergency Management)
In this photo taken by a U.S. Border Patrol agent, two Boundary County sheriff’s deputies and an ambulance paramedic rescue two train operators from atop a sinking locomotive in the Kootenai River on Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2020. The train derailed into the river after a rock slide damaged the tracks about 10 miles east of Bonners Ferry. (Boundary County Emergency Management)

Crews worked throughout Thursday night to clean up the aftermath of a rock slide that derailed three locomotives and six empty rail cars, sending several into the Kootenai River about 10 miles east of Bonners Ferry.

Gus Melonas, a spokesman for the BNSF Railway Co., said the rock slide measured about 50 feet wide and 10 feet deep and fell onto the track from a 150-foot embankment. He said geotechnical engineers were at the scene Friday morning, assessing the stability of the slope.

BNSF transported cranes and other equipment aboard flatbed rail cars to repair the damaged section of the track. Melonas said crews would continue working overnight Friday, and BNSF anticipated reopening the line on Saturday.

At about 11 a.m. Friday, Melonas said all six of the empty cars had been placed back on the track. One of the train engines was being rerailed. One remained on the riverbank, and Melonas said crews planned to hoist it toward the track with cables.

The lead locomotive remained in the water, and Melonas said crews were still drawing up a plan to remove it.

“Representatives of several companies were brought in today to assess what it will take to remove the locomotive safely and with minimal impact to the environment,” the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said in a statement Friday afternoon.

The EPA said about 2,500 feet of containment boom had been placed around the submerged locomotive, as well as downstream, to capture any leaking diesel fuel. The agency said officials from the Idaho Department of Fish and Game were working in the area and had “found no impacts to fish or wildlife thus far.”

As a precaution, a downstream fish hatchery managed by the Kootenai Tribe shut off its water intake from the river, the EPA said.

The Idaho Department of Environmental Quality’s regional office in Coeur d’Alene referred questions about the derailment to Melonas, the BNSF spokesman, who said the submerged locomotive contained an estimated 1,900 gallons of fuel.

“We don’t know how much has been spilled,” Melonas said.

Boundary County’s emergency management department urged boaters to avoid the affected section of the river during the cleanup process. The department said that process likely will last until Wednesday.

“Emergency crews are primarily using boats to survey the river, find collected pockets of diesel fuel and collect it quickly to minimize impact to the environment,” the department said in a statement. “Nonemergency public boat traffic would hinder timely hazmat cleanup operations on the river and possibly jeopardize the safety of themselves and hazmat cleanup personnel.”

The freight train was making its way from Minneapolis to Pasco. It included seven cars containing hazardous materials, none of which derailed or leaked, Melonas said.

After the derailment Thursday night, a rescue team from the Boundary County Sheriff’s Office maneuvered a boat alongside the submerged locomotive to rescue two train operators who had climbed atop it. Neither operator was injured.

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