Department of Ecology employees at the site of an oil train derailment
Department of Ecology employees at the site of an oil train derailment (Photo courtesy of the Department of Ecology)

A Burling­ton North­ern San­ta Fe (BNSF) freight train trans­port­ing extreme­ly volatile Bakken crude oil derailed today near Custer, What­com Coun­ty, caus­ing a fire and prompt­ing author­i­ties to ask near­by res­i­dents to evac­u­ate as a precaution.

There were no fatal­i­ties and no injuries were report­ed, though the derail­ment did result in an oil spill. Sev­en tank cars went off the tracks, with two catch­ing fire, about twen­ty min­utes before noon. Fire­fight­ers respond­ed and had the con­fla­gra­tion most­ly con­tained by 3 PM in the after­noon, though evac­u­a­tion orders were not lift­ed until an hour and forty-five min­utes later.

Custer is locat­ed about halfway between Blaine and Fer­n­dale, which are both north of Belling­ham and the Lum­mi Reservation.

Department of Ecology employees at the site of an oil train derailment
Depart­ment of Ecol­o­gy employ­ees at the site of the BNSF oil train derail­ment (Pho­to cour­tesy of the Depart­ment of Ecology)

The derail­ment occurred not far from Inter­state 5’s Zell Road exit, and the high­way was tem­porar­i­ly closed by the Wash­ing­ton State Patrol while the blaze was being brought under con­trol. I‑5 was sub­se­quent­ly reopened.

My Fer­n­dale News, which was present at a press con­fer­ence called by the author­i­ties after the inci­dent occurred, report­ed that the fol­low­ing details were shared regard­ing the oil train and its derail­ment:

  • the BNSF train was head­ing north­bound after hav­ing just passed through Ferndale
  • it was trav­el­ing to the Phillips 66 Fer­n­dale Refinery
  • 108 cars made up the train, many con­tain­ing Bakken crude oil
  • there were two crew mem­bers onboard the train
  • Sev­en cars derailed includ­ing two cars con­tain­ing oil that caught fire
  • peo­ple with­in a half-mile radius were noti­fied to evac­u­ate by phone noti­fi­ca­tions and law enforce­ment going door-to-door
  • I‑5 was closed in both direc­tions between the Grand­view Road and Birch Bay-Lyn­den Road inter­changes for almost 2 hours since it was with­in the half-mile perimeter
  • the fire is still burn­ing but is being controlled
  • inves­ti­ga­tors are not able to approach the site yet due to the fire
  • the evac­u­a­tion order had not been lift­ed (it was announced short­ly after the press con­fer­ence that it had been lift­ed but with con­tin­gen­cies)
  • the Fed­er­al Bureau of Inves­ti­ga­tion (FBI) and the Wash­ing­ton State Util­i­ties and Trans­porta­tion had peo­ple at the scene to aid in the investigation
  • water was put on the fire ini­tial­ly to cool down the area and adja­cent rail­road cars
  • no struc­tures were report­ed damaged
  • no peo­ple were report­ed injured
  • while the total impact is yet to be deter­mined, the spill was con­tained local­ly and did not appear to impact any water bodies
  • addi­tion­al air qual­i­ty mon­i­tors were set up in case there was need to alert peo­ple nearby
  • none of the offi­cials had infor­ma­tion regard­ing what caused the derail­ment and would not until the inves­ti­ga­tion pro­vides such
  • fire crews along with refin­ery per­son­nel remain at the scene while the fire burns itself out

It is for­tu­nate that was no loss of life or sig­nif­i­cant prop­er­ty dam­age in this inci­dent. But there eas­i­ly could have been. The dan­gers of oil trains are well known, yet they con­tin­ue to pass through com­mu­ni­ties all over the Pacif­ic North­west and beyond. The grave risk to peo­ple, ani­mals, and prop­er­ty from the trans­port of dirty fos­sil fuels can only be elim­i­nat­ed by phas­ing out coal, oil, and gas. Cli­mate action is thus not only social­ly and moral­ly respon­si­ble, it is nec­es­sary to get rid of a threat to the safe­ty of our neighborhoods.

About the author

Andrew Villeneuve is the founder and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, as well as the founder of NPI's sibling, the Northwest Progressive Foundation. He has worked to advance progressive causes for over two decades as a strategist, speaker, author, and organizer. Andrew is also a cybersecurity expert, a veteran facilitator, a delegate to the Washington State Democratic Central Committee, and a member of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps.

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