Fires continued into the night when 10 cars of a 108-car train carrying Bakken crude oil derailed in northern Whatcom County near the Cherry Point refineries on Dec. 22. State, tribal and county leaders are among those expressing concerns about accountability as well as future risks. (Washington State Department of Ecology photo)

share:

When an oil train derailed in a fiery crash in Custer in December, about 29,000 gallons of the cargo was spilled. Some of it burned, some of it was vacuumed onto container trucks along with firefighting foam and water, and some of it settled into the soil. 

Up to about 8,000 gallons remain unaccounted for, according to numbers the state Department of Ecology released Tuesday, three weeks after the incident. 

“That’s predominantly going to be locked up in soil in areas we couldn’t excavate — and the majority of that is under the railroad tracks — or where we couldn’t dig any deeper,” Ecology Oil Spill Response Section Manager Dave Byers said of the missing Bakken crude. 

That oil is sitting on land north of the Lummi Nation’s reservation, and within a region, called a usual and accustomed area, the tribe historically relied on for food and other resources. 

“I was really worried. I am really worried,” Lummi Nation Chairman Lawrence Solomon said of his reaction upon learning of the derailment. “We have oil coming through our usual and accustomed areas daily, and when we really think about oil pipelines and oil by rail, it’s not a question of if it will happen but when it will happen.” 

While BNSF Railway trains have delivered billions of gallons of crude oil to refineries in Whatcom County over nearly a decade, the late-morning derailment on Dec. 22 marked a first for the county and the state. Byers, whose tenure with Ecology predates the growth of oil train traffic in the state since it began in 2012, said he hadn’t before investigated a derailment that spilled and ignited on Washington soil. 

BNSF spokesperson Courtney Wallace said 10 of the 108 tank cars on the train derailed, five caught fire and three leaked oil. It’s Ecology’s responsibility to ensure the oil spilled and yet unaccounted for doesn’t impact drinking water, salmon habitat or other natural resources.

For now, Ecology estimates between 5,435 and 7,965 gallons remain on site. Byers said further lab analysis and data crunching will come, but the estimate isn’t likely to change much. An even 6,700 gallons — the median of Ecology’s estimate — could fill the gas tanks of about 450 sedans. 

“We’re trying to figure where every last gallon went,” Byers said. 

Solomon said Lummi Nation sent some of its Department of Natural Resources staff to the scene of the incident and is relieved it didn’t occur at a salmon-bearing river or creek. But he’s concerned that not all of the oil was cleaned up. 

“Us as people — us with our indian values, us as indian people — we respect Mother Earth and we take care of her. Having that much oil spilled in our environment anywhere — that’s alarming,” Solomon said. 

Looking for accountability, leadership

The derailment is prompting officials who have lobbied for state and federal oil train regulations in recent years to consider whether more can be done. 

“Bottom line: This is why moving to cleaner energy sources makes sense,” said state Rep. Alex Ramel, D-Bellingham, who could see from his office the dark plume of smoke rising from the derailment. 

Ramel is drafting a bill on energy issues that’s focused on a transition to electric vehicles. As for oil train safety regulations, he said it’s important to see the results of pending investigations into the cause of the derailment before making any moves toward legislation. 

“We’re waiting to get a report from the National Transportation Safety Board about what happened and I’d like to make sure that we’re responding (to the findings) … That we understand the risk factors and how we can minimize them,” Ramel said. 

Solomon said the Lummi Nation is also watching for consequences to be administered following investigation of the incident. 

“I hope there is accountability and responsibility,” he said. “Anybody that’s a leader should not just let this go by.” 

For Ramel, who is on staff with nonprofit Stand.Earth but takes leaves of absence during the legislative session, the potential for fiery derailments has long been a concern. The recent derailment brought an issue he’s worked on for years close to home. 

“I’ve seen many, many videos of oil train disasters,” he said. “I did not ever expect to look out my window and be able to see the cloud rising from one.” 

One long train out of many 

The one train that derailed and the 29,000 gallons — one tanker car worth of oil — spilled are part of the ongoing, large-scale transport of crude oil across the West by train. 

Smoke from burning Bakken crude spilled in the derailment could be seen from nearby Interstate 5 as well as more distant areas. Above, the traffic camera at Milepost 268 captured the scene at mid-day.

The train that left its tracks in Custer had almost completed its about 1,200-mile journey from the Bakken region to northwest Washington along BNSF tracks. It was almost to the rail spur that would take it to the industrial center at Cherry Point, and had a few miles of track left to cover before reaching the Phillips 66 Ferndale refinery where crude is converted into gasoline and other fuels. 

While the cause of the derailment remains under federal investigation, many say the incident underscores the risks posed to communities and natural resources along train tracks that carry crude oil across Montana, Idaho, Oregon and Washington. 

“There’s no safe way to move oil,” longtime anti-oil advocate Matt Krogh, who lives in Whatcom County, said in a Tweet following the derailment. 

In Washington, BNSF Railway hauls that volatile cargo through the state’s densest population centers — first Spokane, then Vancouver, Tacoma and Seattle — and across the state’s largest river: the Columbia. Between 2.1 billion and 2.7 billion gallons of oil have been moved by rail in Washington each year between 2015 and 2019, according to Ecology records.

When the trains bound for the Phillips 66 Ferndale or BP Cherry Point refineries arrive in Whatcom County, they pass through Bellingham, cross the Nooksack River and pass through Ferndale. 

Eddy Ury of the local nonprofit RE Sources for Sustainable Communities said having a local derailment was only a matter of time. He found himself on the edge of his seat Dec. 22, wondering if the burning tank cars would explode. 

Explosions have occurred. In Lac-Mégantic, Québec, a massive derailment and explosion killed 47 people in July 2013, and ignited fear and activism in the Pacific Northwest. 

“What we call them, what they essentially are, is bomb trains,” Ury said. “Our position has been that it is not an acceptable risk. Unit trains of over 100 cars of the same volatile, hazardous product should not exist.” 

In June 2016 a Union Pacific Railroad train derailed near Mosier, Oregon, and spilled 47,000 gallons of oil; some went into the Columbia River and some burned. Byers said he responded to that incident, just across the river from his home state. 

Planning and training — and luck

Byers, as well as Whatcom County Sheriff’ Bill Elfo, Ramel, Ury and Solomon, concurred that it was lucky that the December derailment happened in an unincorporated community of just a few hundred residents. 

“These trains travel over 1,000 miles to bring oil here, and when you’re 5 miles from the refinery or whatever it was and the disaster happens there, there are trained crews ready to respond,” Ramel said. “That’s not the case for the 950 other miles along the route.” 

No injuries were reported and Ecology has not found evidence of contamination, from oil or firefighting materials, in drinking water wells, streams or wetlands near the derailment site. 

Ty Keltner, of Ecology, said requiring companies such as BNSF to have oil spill contingency plans and making annual spill response training a component of those plans helped ensure the derailment in Custer was handled well. 

“The success of this response came down to good partnerships that we have with local folks and first responders, our federal partners at the EPA and the relationships we have built through doing training exercises and drills with all of those agencies,” he said. 

Ecology has determined BNSF Railway followed its oil spill contingency plan as required. 

Meanwhile, Ecology is drafting a long-term cleanup plan that will outline requirements for BNSF to address the oil remaining hidden at the derailment site. Byers said it may also require the company to conduct offsite mitigation work. 

The cause of the incident will take longer to determine. It is under investigation by the state Utilities and Transportation Commission, National Transportation Safety Board and Federal Railroad Administration. The FBI is also investigating because of the possibility of criminal interference with the train tracks, which was discovered in several places in Western Washington in late 2020 and led to the arrests of two Bellingham women. 

The Federal Railroad Administration plans to issue an investigation report in May, according to the public affairs office. The FBI is not clear on when its investigation will be complete, according to the Seattle public affairs office. 

Whether the results of those investigations will lead to fines against BNSF, legislation for oil train safety or criminal charges remains to be seen.