COLUMBUS, Mont. (AP) — A bridge that crosses the Yellowstone River in Montana collapsed early Saturday, plunging portions of a freight train carrying hazardous materials into the stormy waters below.
The cars were carrying hot asphalt and molten sulfur, Stillwater County Disaster and Emergency Services said. Authorities closed drinking water intakes downstream as they assessed the danger after the 6 a.m. crash. An Associated Press reporter saw a yellow substance coming out of some of the tank cars.
David Stamey, county emergency services chief, said there was no immediate danger to crews working at the site and the hazardous materials were being diluted by the flooding river. There were three wagons of asphalt and four wagons of sulfur in the river.
The train crew was safe with no injuries reported, Montana Rail Link spokesman Andy Garland said in a statement. Asphalt and sulfur solidify quickly when exposed to cooler temperatures, he said.
Railroad crews were at the scene in Stillwater County, near the city of Columbus, about 40 miles (about 64 kilometers) west of Billings. The area is in a sparsely populated section of the Yellowstone River Valley, surrounded by ranches and farmland. The river flows there from Yellowstone National Park, which is about 177 kilometers to the southwest.
“We are committed to addressing any potential impact to the region as a result of this incident and working to understand the reasons for the accident,” Garland said.
In neighboring Yellowstone County, officials said they have implemented emergency measures at water treatment plants due to the “potential spill of hazardous materials” and asked residents to conserve water.
The cause of the collapse is under investigation. The river has been swollen by recent heavy rains, but it’s unclear if that was a factor.
The Yellowstone saw record flooding in 2022 that caused extensive damage to Yellowstone National Park and adjacent towns in Montana. Robert Bea, a retired engineering professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who has analyzed the causes of hundreds of major disasters, said repeated years of high river flows provided a clue to the possible cause.
“The high water flow results in high forces acting directly on the jetty and, more importantly, on the river bottom,” Bea said. “You may have erosion or scour that removes support from the foundation. High forces translate to a high probability of structural or foundation failure that could act as a trigger to trigger the accident.
Bea said investigators would also want to check for wear or rust in bridge components as well as a record of maintenance, repairs and inspections.
Federal Railroad Administration officials were at the scene.
Kelly Hitchcock of the Columbus Water Users cut off the flow of river water in an irrigation ditch below the collapsed bridge to prevent the contents of tank cars from reaching nearby farmland. The Stillwater County Sheriff’s Office called the group Saturday morning to notify them of the collapse, Hitchcock said.
The United States Environmental Protection Agency notes that sulfur is an element commonly used as a fertilizer as well as an insecticide, fungicide, and rodenticide.
Johnson reported from Seattle.