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Federal officials have declared Yellowstone River fish too toxic for human consumption after a train derailment that occurred back in June.
The Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (MFWP) issued a consumption advisory on Tuesday afternoon declaring the discovery of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) across multiple fish species. MFWP stated that the source of the toxins remains unknown. MFWP advised that no fish from the river be consumed anywhere, even beyond their advisory area.
“Out of an abundance of precaution and unknown conditions in adjacent sections of the river, those with specific concerns may want to avoid consuming all species of fish from the Yellowstone River at any location until more is known on the severity and prevalence of this contamination,” stated MFWP.
The PAHs discovered were naphthalene, 1-methylnaphthalene, 2-methylnaphthalene, and acenaphthylene. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classifies naphthalene, 1-methylnaphthalene, 2-methylnaphthalene, as cancer-causing agents, but doesn’t classify acenaphthylene as cancer-causing.
Apart from cancer, the CDC notes that PAHs have been associated with the onset of various pulmonary, gastrointestinal, renal, and dermatological issues.
The consumption advisory affects all fish species in the river spanning from the Indian Fort Fishing Access Site (FAS) near the census-designated place of Reed Point to the Highway 212 bridge in the city of Laurel. That’s roughly 45 miles, longer than the initial MFWP emergency closure enacted over the train derailment back in June. That closure spanned from Reed Point to the city of Columbus, roughly 18 miles.
MFWP explained that the PAHs source was unknown — despite the train derailment — due to the natural occurrence of some PAHs in the environment, like shale rock, and the introduction of other common materials like oil, gas, plastics, and pesticides.
In June, 10 cars transporting asphalt liquified petroleum, molten sulfur, and scrap metal fell into the Yellowstone River after the 52-car freight train derailed when the Twin Bridges railroad bridge collapsed. The train’s crew reported no injuries.
The highway bridge parallel to the railroad bridge was closed and demolished in 2021. The bridge passed a safety inspection in May, according to a spokesman for the entity that maintains the bridge, Montana Rail Link (MRL), in a statement to the Associated Press.
The EPA noted in its press release immediately following the derailment that asphalt globules were detected downstream and in the body of the river. However, the EPA said that the asphalt waste wasn’t water soluble and wouldn’t affect water quality.
In a site update last month, the EPA said that there were no known threats to public health from the spill. The agency noted that local cleanup crews were only targeting “actionable asphalt material,” or only that which could be removed without causing “significant damage to natural habitat” like sediment and vegetation. As a result, the EPA reported that the crews have been breaking down the material into smaller pieces and covering them with sediment to “aid in the natural breakdown process.”
This practice is part of Phase 1 of the cleanup effort, which began early last month and will last until next spring. Phase 2 is scheduled for next summer.
Per that update, crews collected approximately 231,700 pounds of asphalt out of the estimated 419,400 pounds of asphalt.
Tuesday’s consumption advisory followed another from last month, which more narrowly affected mountain whitefish following the discovery of elevated phenanthrene levels, another PAH. Phenanthrene wasn’t discovered in the more recent sampling that resulted in this week’s sweeping consumption advisory. The EPA doesn’t classify phenanthrene as a cancer-causing agent.