Investigation continues around oil-train derailment, fire in Custer, Whatcom County – Seattle Times

Jenny Reich was preparing to open her glass shop in Custer, Whatcom County, on Tuesday afternoon when there was a loud noise and suddenly “everything was shaking.”

Reich, a longtime Custer resident, said she is so accustomed to the rumble that’s part of living close to a rail line that she doesn’t usually notice the trains anymore.

But this time, a plume of black smoke obscured the view from her window. Emergency personnel arrived at the scene. And shortly after, Reich was advised to evacuate her business, Whimsy Art Glass. She grabbed her wallet, keys and dog and hit the road.

Down the street from her art studio, a 108-car BNSF Railway train carrying Bakken crude oil had derailed and some of the cars caught fire — closing roads, forcing temporary evacuations and highlighting the risks Washington faces in the transportation of the highly volatile crude oil, whose shipments have sparked controversy in the past.

Two BNSF Railway employees were on board the train at the time, but no injuries were reported, Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo said during a Tuesday afternoon news conference.

Seven of the tank cars derailed and two ignited around 11:40 a.m. in the 7500 block of Portal Way, according to a Tuesday afternoon statement from BNSF. The train was headed toward the Phillips 66 refinery in Ferndale.

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Drone and cell phone video show black smoke billowing after a train carrying crude oil derailed and caught fire on Tuesday morning in Custer, Whatcom County. (Courtesy of Shawn Graham and Custer Drone Pilot)

By 3 p.m., firefighters had brought the blaze under control, though the cause of the derailment remains under investigation, the Sheriff’s Office said.

An evacuation order, which was initially put in place for everyone within a half-mile of the wreck, was lifted for Custer residents around 4:45 p.m., according to the Sheriff’s Office.

Because crews were able to close streets and move people out quickly, Elfo added, there were “no close calls with civilians.” It’s unclear how many people were evacuated.

He also urged the public to continue avoiding the area while a hazmat team analyzes the toxic impacts of the crude oil.

“BNSF will coordinate with authorities as the investigation proceeds,” a statement from the railway said. “Our thoughts are with those who have been affected by this incident. We will provide additional details as they become available.”

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During the conference, Elfo also acknowledged recent federal charges against two people for allegedly placing “shunts” on BNSF tracks and said FBI investigators were on scene Tuesday.

“At this point, it would be speculative to connect other events with this incident,” an FBI spokesperson wrote. “FBI Seattle encourages anyone with knowledge of the train derailment to contact tips.fbi.gov.”

Atlas James, a 20-year-old who recently moved from Los Angeles to Bellingham with his family, said he and his mother were returning from a morning drive in Blaine when they spotted the black clouds above them.

“At first we thought they were just weird clouds,” James said. “My mom pointed them out. … And then they turned black. And we were like, ‘Oh no.’ The smoke was just coming. It was very sudden.”

The two had been driving down Portal Way less than half an hour before the train derailed.

“It was very scary to say the least,” he said. “We’re very grateful we weren’t there at the same time.”

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Once the fire is fully extinguished, the public is advised to wait until the smoke plume dissipates to ensure that the area is safe again.

Interstate 5 temporarily closed between Grandview Road and Birch Bay Lynden Road, but reopened at 2 p.m. in both directions, according to the Washington State Department of Transportation. Local roads remained closed as of 5 p.m.

“If you don’t have to travel through the area, please don’t. If you do, use an alternate route,” Elfo said.

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WSDOT is advising drivers to use Sumas or Lynden border crossings if headed to Canada.

The National Transportation Safety Board will investigate the derailment, said spokesperson Eric Weiss. “We’re interested in the performance of the tank cars. We’ve been following crude-oil training and safety for years so we want to see how they performed.”

Weiss said officials are waiting for the cars to “cool down” before investigators determine next steps.

The Tuesday incident resurfaced an ongoing debate about the Pacific Northwest’s key role in crude-oil transport. 

Oil trains are called “bomb trains” by their critics because the Bakken crude — which is more volatile than many other crudes due to elevated levels of gases such as ethane, propane and butane — they carry is explosive. The trains wind along fragile environments in Washington, including the Columbia River and Puget Sound, and through communities from downtown Seattle to hamlets near the U.S.-Canada border, including Custer. The trains also travel along the I-5 corridor. 

The most recent oil-train derailment in the Pacific Northwest was in June 2016 near Mosier, Oregon, when several rail cars derailed in the Columbia River Gorge east of Portland. Emergency responders were able to put out the fire before it spread, and no injuries or deaths were reported.

The train derailed for unknown reasons less than half a mile from the Columbia River, and it was only lucky that the wind wasn’t roaring through the gorge that day to spread the flames. 

A 2013 explosion of an oil train in Lac-Megantic in Quebec caught the world’s attention when 47 people were killed and 1.5 million gallons of crude were spilled.

“We have not had our Lac-Megantic moment, but we are playing Russian roulette,” said Eric de Place, a researcher with the nonprofit Sightline Institute. “The derailment in Mosier was very close to town. … [Tuesday’s derailment] was another near miss. 

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“These derailments will continue to happen and these oil trains will continue to blow up.”   

Seattle has had one warning shot: In July 2014, a train pulling 97 tank cars — each carrying at least 27,000 gallons of Bakken crude from North Dakota — came to a halt under the Magnolia Bridge when three cars derailed. There were no spills and no fires or injuries — which nonetheless once again raised concern about oil trains running right through Interbay. 

Oil trains have become a daily risk in the Northwest because of the boom in U.S. shale oil production, in which producers extract crude oil from shale rock formations. The process has unleashed a gusher of domestic oil, which has tanked gasoline prices and reduced U.S. dependence on foreign oil, but also poses unique risks for Washington and Oregon.  

The two states are the critical corridors for crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken oil fields to refineries in Washington. Every year, 20 billion gallons of oil moves through Washington by vessel, rail and pipeline. 

Washington has one of the lowest spill rates in the nation, according to U.S. Coast Guard data. The state has a zero-spill standard. But spills happen, primarily in the I-5 corridor, mapping by the state Department of Ecology shows. 

The most recent report by Ecology on crude-oil movement through Washington shows that from July through September of this year, more than 14 million barrels, or more than 595 million gallons of crude, was transported by rail through Washington from North Dakota, and Alberta, and Saskatchewan in Canada. 

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Every week on average, during the most recent quarter alone, more than a million barrels of crude — or 45 million gallons of oil — moved by rail through Washington in a total of more than 20,000 cars. That’s an average of more than 1,500 rail cars per week.  

There were no spills reported from train transport of oil during the most recent quarterly reporting period.

Ty Keltner, a spokesperson for the state Department of Ecology, said Tuesday evening the agency was continuing to respond to the incident, though he hadn’t heard of any impact to local waterways.

“We are on scene preventing runoff from the area from impacting water bodies or migrating offsite,” Keltner wrote in an email.

During the Tuesday news conference, Elfo assured local residents that state and national transportation agencies were contacted and had quickly launched an investigation into the derailment.

“We have the right people to determine what happened and why,” he said.

Anyone affected by Tuesday’s evacuation can contact BNSF Railway’s hotline at 866-243-4784.

Seattle Times staff reporters Melissa Hellmann, Michelle Baruchman and Paige Cornwell contributed to this report.

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