Asphalt remains in Yellowstone River, even after cleanup from train derailment | OUT WEST ROUNDUP


Petroleum asphalt remains in Yellowstone River after train derailment cleanup

REED POINT — Two months after a railroad bridge collapse sent carloads of hazardous oil products plunging into Montana’s Yellowstone River, the cleanup workers are gone and a mess remains.

Thick mats of tarry petroleum asphalt cover portions of sandbars. Oil-speckled rocks and bushes line the shore along with chunks of yellow sulfur, a component of crude. In the middle of the river downstream of the bridge, a tangle of black steel juts out of the water from a large piece of ruptured tank car.

The railroad, Montana Rail Link, in conjunction with federal and state officials halted most cleanup work and stopped actively looking for contaminated sites in mid-August. They said falling river levels that have been exposing more pollution also make it harder to safely operate the large power boats used by cleanup crews.

Almost half of the 48,000 gallons of molten petroleum asphalt that spilled has not been recovered, officials said.

The spill extends more than 125 miles along a stretch of river popular among anglers and recreationists and relied upon by farmers to irrigate crops. Yellowstone National Park is upstream and not impacted.

Wendy Weaver, executive director of Montana Freshwater Partners called for a “second phase of cleanup.”

The nonprofit group focused on water protection has received reports of tar balls and other asphalt at more than 40 sites where cleanup workers previously passed through.

Asphalt is not as volatile as other oil products such as gasoline. It emits chemicals that are toxic to humans and the environment at a slower rate, but breaks down slowly and can have a more lasting impact, said University of Houston chemistry Professor Ramanan Krishnamoorti.

Montana Rail Link spokesperson Andy Garland said the company was committed to addressing the derailment’s impacts, and decided in coordination with state and federal officials that “a different approach” was needed as the river dropped and decreasing amounts of asphalt were being recovered. A local task force will continue responding to reports of spilled material, he said.


Oil production boosts state income, legislators build savings

SANTA FE — Record-breaking oil production in New Mexico is likely to provide state government with a new multibillion-dollar surplus during the upcoming budget year, economists for the state announced on Aug. 23.

Annual state general fund income would increase to $13 billion for the fiscal year that runs from July 2024 to June 2025 — a surplus of $3.5 billion, or 36%, over current annual general fund spending obligations, according to the forecast.

The estimates set the stage for budget negotiations when the legislature meets in January 2024, amid public concerns about crime, health care and the quality of public education in a state with high rates of childhood poverty and low workforce participation.

Annual oil production in New Mexico has more than doubled over the past five years, as the state became the No. 2 producer behind Texas. The energy industry delivered record-breaking income to the state over the past year through severance taxes and federal royalty payments, while the oil sector also bolstered government income linked to taxes on sales, corporate income and personal income.

Money is piling up in state accounts. Uncommitted general fund balances surpassed $4.3 billion on July 1, equal to roughly 50% of annual state spending commitments.

Still, several legislators sounded a note of caution on new spending commitments — and whether they can be sustained if energy markets and production falter.

Surging oil production has allowed New Mexico in recent years to bolster public salaries, expand access to no-pay childcare, and offer tuition-free college to its residents —- while also setting aside billions of dollars in a variety of “rainy-day” emergency accounts and investment trusts.

Legislation adopted this year will divert excess income from petroleum to the state’s severance tax permanent fund, to generate investment income and underwrite construction projects.

Legislators have responded to budget surpluses in recent years by approving tax relief and direct rebates — including payments in June of $500 to individuals, or $1,000 per household, and a gradual reduction in taxes on sales and business services.

US attorney pleads with young men to stop the shooting

ALBUQUERQUE — The top federal prosecutor in New Mexico has a message for young men in the community who may be spiraling out of control and feeling trapped in a world of hatred and fear: “The shooting must stop.”

Alexander M.M. Uballez, the U.S. attorney for the District of New Mexico, made the comment on Aug. 16 while he announced a new $2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Justice that is meant to help address the root causes of violence in the state’s largest city. The funding will support efforts by Albuquerque’s Community Safety Department and its violence intervention program.

The city’s Community Safety Department is separate from the police force and the fire department. Launched in 2021 as the city marked another year of record homicides, the agency provides crisis aid, welfare checks and makes referrals for people in need.

Aside from expanding existing work, city officials plan to use some of the funding to explore the possibility of creating an Office of Violence Prevention, similar to those operating in cities in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. They say such an office could bring together prevention programs that cover schools and hospitals as well as trauma recovery centers.


College settles lawsuit alleging discrimination against Black athletes

HIGHLAND — A Kansas community college that was accused of trying to reduce the number of Black student-athletes has agreed to a settlement, the U.S. Justice Department announced on Aug. 28.

The department said in a news release that the agreement requires Highland Community College to make its disciplinary proceedings fairer, to provide more training and to improve its procedures for responding to student complaints.

The agreement resolves the department’s investigation into complaints that Black students were targeted for searches and disciplined more severely than their white peers, resulting in their unfair removal from campus housing or even expulsion, the department said in the release.

Former coaches and athletes described horrific treatment in a pair of lawsuits.

The coaches’ lawsuit, which was settled this year, alleged that the school intimidated Black student-athletes into leaving and told coaches not to recruit African Americans.

The American Civil Liberties Union alleged in another lawsuit, which also was settled, that Highland expelled Black students for minor or bogus infractions and subjected them to arbitrary searches, surveillance and harassment on campus.

About 80 miles northwest of Kansas City, Missouri, Highland has about 3,200 students. Fewer than 6% of the students are African American, but half or more of the student-athletes, until recently, were Black and came from out of state, one of the lawsuits noted.


Casper Police Department 1st in state to achieve ‘gold standard’

The Casper Police Department is the first and only law enforcement agency in Wyoming to achieve the “gold standard” accreditation for best practices.

The credential was earned through the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, Inc., which is commonly called CALEA.

Casper police tried to earn it twice prior to their successful completion this year, Chief Keith McPheeters said. About nine other Wyoming law enforcement agencies have attempted to get it. Some state agencies have been recognized but never fully accredited.

Only about 5% of U.S. law enforcement agencies earn CALEA accreditation, according to their website.

The process of CALEA accreditation begins with a “rigorous” self-assessment, involving a review of department policies against internationally accepted standards for best practices, a department announcement states.

Then, outside, independent assessors with “significant public safety experience” assessed the Casper Police Department, the statement said.


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