2008 tanker spill on the East Shore, photo by Jennifer McBride
Water quality in Flathead Lake and other water bodies throughout the watershed is vulnerable to contamination from toxic spills. Toxic spills can be large or small – from spilling gasoline into the lake while fueling your boat to truck crashes on the highway along the lake spilling toxic materials.
Prevent small spills by taking extra care when fueling your boat. Used motor oil, paint, and other hazardous waste products should never be dumped on the ground or into storm drains. Dispose of these materials through a local hazardous waste collection center or event.
Major toxic spills into Flathead Lake in recent years include the 2001 sinking of a barge on the lake that resulted in the spill of a significant amount of diesel fuel at Woods Bay and the 2008 crash of a tanker truck on Highway 35 that spilled 6,400 gallons of gasoline on the East Shore south of Finley Point.
New policies and regulations may be needed to better prevent toxic spills. For example, there are currently no regulations requiring regular inspections of commercial boats working on the lake to ensure they take proper safety precautions.
After the 2008 spill, the Flathead Lakers encouraged the Montana Department of Transportation to undertake a comprehensive analysis of highway conditions and use (including the amount and kinds of hazardous materials transported), impacts and costs of the spill, documentation of previous spills, and a thorough evaluation of various alternative remedies (including potential highway improvements, limiting speeds in areas in proximity to the lake, prohibiting “pup” trailers, limiting hazardous materials transport, and increasing enforcement of regulations). We recommended that the analysis, like an Environmental Impact Statement, include an evaluation of the environmental and economic impacts of various alternatives, including a no-action alternative.
Although the Department did conduct a limited analysis and made some changes, including expanding "no passing zones" and posting signs that read "Be Polite Don't Tailgate," the Flathead Lakers have never received a response to our request or a report on the Department's analysis.
Spills of hazardous materials into any water body should be immediately reported to local emergency responders by calling 911.
Spills should also be reported to the Montana Disaster and Emergency Services (DES) 24-hour phone number (406) 841-3911. If no one can be reached at that number, the release or spill may be reported to the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) duty officer at (406) 431-0014.