Skykomish is a small town with about 200 residents in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest in the northeastern corner of King County, Washington. For much of its history, Skykomish was a maintenance and fueling station for the Great Northern Railway, which eventually became part of what is now known as BNSF Railway. Over time, railroad operations resulted in the release of an estimated 2 million gallons of oil and diesel fuel into the town’s soil and groundwater, some of which migrated into the nearby Skykomish River. What is unusual about this particular story is that as the nature of the harm started to be understood, BNSF took full responsibility for cleanup at a level we have seldom seen in many years of consulting on such cases.

The railroad maintenance and fueling station operated from the 1890s until 1974, and most of the contamination occurred during the first half of the 20th century, when the environmental hazards were not yet understood. In addition to the released Bunker C oil and diesel, the former railyard contained arsenic, lead, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) at concentrations that exceeded state and federal cleanup levels.

Greenfield Advisors got involved in 2003, when the law firm representing BNSF hired us to determine the current market value of Skykomish properties affected by soil and groundwater contamination from railroad operations and the loss in value of these properties attributable to the contamination. We determined that the diminution was generally about 10%.

Environmental cleanup, Skykomish, Washington

Environmental cleanup, Skykomish, Washington, photo courtesy of Joe Mabel, CC BY-SA 3.0.

BNSF and the Washington Department of Ecology partnered with the town and residents to clean and restore Skykomish. BNSF paid $5 million in fines and is paying for the town’s cleanup, expected to cost up over $100 million. About 20 homes and businesses have been lifted off their foundations and temporarily relocated to allow cleanup of the underlying soil. BNSF has provided temporary housing for people who were displaced during cleanup and compensated business owners for lost revenue.

The cleanup plan also involved environmental restoration and flood control projects in the former Maloney Creek wetland, removal and replacement of 1,200 feet of river levee and the main road embankment into town, replacement of old town water lines, and construction of a new wastewater treatment system for the town. Most of the cleanup and restoration efforts took place between 2006 and 2011, but ongoing monitoring and restoration work continues, as well as cleanup beneath the historic Skykomish School.

This short video, just under 6 minutes, provides a very good overview of the project.

We’ve seen lots of cases where the responsible party hems and haws at the contamination remediation bill. BNSF presents one of the few cases where the responsible party took full responsibility and really came through as responsible corporate citizens.