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Yellowstone River whitefish test positive for chemical

Sep 02, 2023

Oil and chemical spill expert Andrew Graham of Polaris Applied Sciences explains the difference between 'actionable' and 'unactionable' asphalt spills at Laurel's train derailment clean up site.

Five whitefish collected below the recent train derailment on the Yellowstone River had elevated levels of the chemical phenanthrene, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks announced on Friday.

The fishes' flesh was tested all together, so whether it was just one fish that was contaminated or all of them is uncertain.

When the train derailed on June 24, an estimated 300,000 to 500,000 pounds of asphalt was dumped into the river, just downstream from Reed Point.

Phenanthrene is within a group of chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs. Whether the asphalt contamination was the source of the chemical in the whitefish is unknown. Some PAHs occur naturally in the environment, especially in the shale rock common in the Yellowstone River Basin.

PAHs are also found in products such as oil, gas, plastics, and pesticides — and are produced through combustion of these products. Laboratory tests on animals have shown exposure to PAHs can cause birth defects, reproductive problems, and damages to skin, body fluids and immune systems. However, these effects from eating fish with high levels of PAHs have not been recorded in humans.

The warning was issued by the Fish Consumption Advisory Board on Friday. The board is made up of representatives from the Montana Department of Public Health & Human Services, Montana Department of Environmental Quality, and Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks. Further testing is needed to determine the contamination source and long-term guidance. The board may update the initial consumption advisory after more fish that have been gathered are tested.

FWP staff collected the five mountain whitefish and five rainbow trout of various lengths below the derailment site for contaminant testing. Rainbow trout collected in this area did not show any levels of contamination. No other species of fish, including brown trout, were collected for testing.

Mountain whitefish are more sensitive to water contaminants, disease and changing conditions, evidenced by large die-offs in the Yellowstone and Madison rivers in recent years. Like the fabled canary in the coal mine, whitefish are considered an indicator species with respect to the effects of global climate change on river water temperatures, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Additional fisheries testing will be conducted in the area. FWP has collected whitefish, rainbow and brown trout, shorthead redhorse, longnose suckers and white suckers. Fish will be collected above and below the derailment site. It's expected to take three weeks for lab results to be available.

Anyone with specific concerns may want to avoid consuming any species of fish from the Yellowstone River in the area until more is known on the severity and prevalence of this contamination, FWP advised. The agencies will alert the public as soon as more information is available.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the International Agency for Research on Cancer have not classified phenanthrene as a cancer-causing substance because there is not enough information on this specific chemical. However, exposure to other PAHs has been shown to cause cancer in laboratory animals and in people who work for many years around mixtures of PAHs.

For more information on PAHS and phenanthrene, visit: or

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