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Montana landowner suing BNSF after October 2022 train derailment

Bridger landowner suing BNSF after October 2022 train derailment
Posted at 6:46 AM, Jun 12, 2024

BRIDGER — A Bridger landowner is suing BNSF Rail for trespassing after 15 train cars derailed a half-mile east of Bridger on BNSF railway-owned tracks on Oct. 1, 2022, spilling 31,000 gallons of fuel.

“(BNSF's) done nothing, and the (state) Department of Environmental Quality has been their lap dog,” said landowner Shala Cullum on Tuesday. “Petroleum distillates work a lot like a volcano. So, if you can envision a volcano and the lava and the ash, the way that it plumes up, that’s what happens underground.”

Bridger landowner suing BNSF after October 2022 train derailment
Oct. 1, 2022

The lawsuit was filed last year, with attorney Tim Bechtold representing the Cullums.

“We filed a lawsuit in June of 2023 because it became obvious that the railroad was not doing an effective job of mitigating the site,” said Bechtold. “So in this case, the Cullums are suing the railroad for trespass, because they had taken their petroleum product and trespassed onto the Cullums' land.”

Bridger landowner suing BNSF after October 2022 train derailment

According to Bechtold, in Montana, a railroad company cannot be sued for negligence because it is a "common carrier," which means the railroad companies serve a purpose to society by carrying goods. The state follows a common carrier exception.

"Just because it's a societal way, or balance, of what we consider important," Bechtold said.

Bridger landowner suing BNSF after October 2022 train derailment

BNSF declined to speak with MTN News, citing pending litigation.

Cullum said that the horses on her property started to develop marks on their noses, which they believe were chemical burns, because once they removed the horses from the pasture, they were better within a few days.

Bridger landowner suing BNSF after October 2022 train derailment

She is also concerned that since the plume of petroleum underground has not been determined, it could be quickly heading toward the nearby Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone River.

“So much of this situation is hard to place a value on,” Cullum said. “How it’s impacting our animals? We really don’t know. How it’s impacting the grass? We really don’t know.”

Bridger landowner suing BNSF after October 2022 train derailment

The Cullums had hoped to build a home on their property one day, but now fear that will never be an option. Cullum said that she was told it would take decades to get the petroleum product out of their land.

“Our dream was to build a home on this property. We can’t drill a well that would have safe drinking water now," Cullum said. "Our goal has always been to leave something for our kids and now, what are we leaving them?”