Cleanup crews discovered contaminated groundwater late Thursday night at the site of a BNSF train derailment that leaked thousands of gallons of diesel fuel on the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community reservation.

Under the supervision of the Environmental Protection Agency, crews contracted by the railway have pumped out some 3,000 gallons of contaminated groundwater, according to a Friday news release from a team that includes federal, state and local environmental, emergency response and railway agencies.

BNSF train derailment

Michael Sibley, environmental scientist for the EPA, said only a small percentage of the 3,000 gallons is diesel; the rest is a water-diesel mix.

Crews saw the sheen of fuel on the water as they were digging out contaminated soil, said Ty Keltner, a spokesperson for the state Department of Ecology. That doesn’t mean it is contaminating groundwater that would be extracted as drinking water, he said.

Crews also removed more than 1,200 cubic yards of soil and will install groundwater wells to monitor any “migration of diesel” from the spill site, according to the news release. BNSF will temporarily store the contaminated soil until it can be disposed of in a permitted landfill.


Sibley said crews excavated soil until samples came back clean — free of contaminants — in a mobile lab. The federal agency has sent off additional soil samples for independent analysis at labs elsewhere.

The monitoring could continue for up to a year, he said. If it becomes too dangerous to remove contaminated water with heavy equipment, Sibley said, crews will insert devices that heat and vaporize the diesel to remove it.

The BNSF derailment is an example of why the tribe is taking the railway company to court over the amount of crude oil carried through the reservation and its sensitive marine ecosystems.

A trial is set to begin Monday over the tribe’s 2015 lawsuit alleging BNSF trespassed when it ran thousands of trains filled with highly combustible crude oil over the reservation without its consent — violating a 1991 agreement the tribe says limited the length of trains allowed to pass through.

Early Thursday morning, the train’s two locomotives derailed and one buffer car partially derailed next to a recreational vehicle park about 400 feet from the Swinomish Casino and Lodge along the Padilla Bay waterfront.

It was initially unclear how much diesel leaked from the locomotives. An update Thursday night from the three agencies said up to 3,100 gallons of diesel spilled.


“We have a long way to go,” Swinomish Chair Steve Edwards said in a statement, “but we know that things could have been much, much worse. We at Swinomish will continue to do everything we can to protect the waters and natural resources around us, while ensuring public safety.”

The spill happened on a berm near the Swinomish Channel, which is 11 miles long and feeds into Padilla Bay to the north and Skagit Bay to the south. It’s partly dredged, historically connecting some shallow tidal sloughs and mud flats that are rearing habitat for juvenile Chinook and other salmonid species.

No diesel reached the shoreline as of Friday afternoon. The area is protected by booms.

The Coast Guard observed nearby waterways with a drone and later a helicopter, searching for a sheen on the water, which would indicate contamination, on Thursday. No harm to wildlife has been reported.

“The train did not derail in the direction that would have put pollutants into water, so we’re very fortunate that most of what was spilled ended up on land,” Ecology spokesperson Emily Tasaka said Thursday.