A BNSF train derailed early Thursday on the Swinomish Reservation near Anacortes, leaking diesel fuel.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, state Ecology Department and railway company BNSF worked Thursday to defuel and upright the two toppled locomotives, remove the remaining train cars from the mangled tracks and remove contaminated soil from the area.
It was initially unclear how much diesel fuel leaked from the two locomotives that toppled. An update Thursday night from the three agencies said up to 3,100 gallons of diesel spilled and 600 gallons were recovered from the ground.
While it didn’t meet the standard criteria for opening an investigation, Federal Railroad Administration officials said Friday they are sending a member of their safety team to monitor the cleanup.
Here’s what we know.
A BNSF train traveling east toward Burlington after leaving an oil refinery derailed shortly after midnight on the Swinomish Reservation.
There were seven cars in the train, including two locomotives, one buffer car and four tank cars. The train’s two locomotives derailed and one buffer car partially derailed next to an RV park and about 400 feet from the Swinomish Casino and Lodge along the Padilla Bay waterfront.
Alison Meyers, an Ecology response unit supervisor, said one of the locomotives was spilling diesel fuel and lube oil Thursday morning.
None of the train’s other cars tipped off the tracks. They typically carry crude oil to two oil refineries on Fidalgo Island and near Anacortes.
No injuries were reported among the train’s crew, an engineer and a conductor.
A BNSF spokesperson said the cause of the derailment was under investigation. The company estimates the span of railroad track will reopen by noon Friday.
Train derailments like this one are under heightened scrutiny across the country after a Norfolk Southern train derailed last month in East Palestine, Ohio, spilling millions of gallons of toxic chemicals into the soil and water and unleashing a billowing cloud of black smoke.
There were at least 1,164 train derailments across the country last year, according to federal data reported by NPR.
The cleanup effort
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, state Department of Ecology, BNSF, Skagit County Department of Emergency Management and Swinomish Indian Tribal Community responded to the scene Thursday.
Excavators loaded tainted soil into steel containers and cranes were on the scene to right the heavy locomotives under the supervision of the EPA and Ecology.
The Coast Guard circled nearby waterways with a drone and later a helicopter, searching for a sheen on the water that would indicate oil. But no harmful effects to water or wildlife were found as of Thursday afternoon, according to the EPA and BNSF.
“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.
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.
The Department of Ecology receives more than 4,000 spill reports each year. Washington’s last oil spill caused by a train was a BNSF derailment in Custer in December 2020, during which an estimated 28,962 gallons of oil were spilled.
Tribe readies court case against railway company
On Swinomish land, where the tracks cross sensitive marine ecosystems and near the tribe’s financial assets, 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.
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 the tribe’s consent. The tribe says BNSF was knowingly violating an easement agreement the two parties made in 1991 that the tribe says limited the length of trains allowed to pass through.
BNSF did not respond to a request for an interview Thursday about the lawsuit or derailment.
Herb Krohn, a railroad conductor and the legislative director for SMART-Transportation Division, which represents railway workers, said the derailment demonstrates a need for more stringent railroad safety laws and regulations.
In wake of the derailment, Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said in a written statement there is more work to be done to “keep our nation’s rail system, communities, rail workers, and environment safe.”
A bill that would have limited the size of trains moving through Washington state died in the Legislature this year.
Tribes react to the derailment
If a catastrophic spill were to happen elsewhere, people could likely uproot their lives and move to a new town, but “that’s not an option for tribal people,” said Tom Wooten, chair of the nearby Samish Indian Nation.
Wooten said the derailment was a reminder of the need for a safe method of transportation for fuel and other potentially toxic materials.
“This is a reality of the business they’re in,” he said. “They have to move it by pipe, or by tanker or barge.”
“We have a long way to go, but we know that things could have been much, much worse,” said Steve Edwards, Swinomish Indian community chairman. “We at Swinomish will continue to do everything we can to protect the waters and natural resources around us, while ensuring public safety.”
In their 2015 complaint, the Swinomish tribe said BNSF was reportedly running six 100-car trains per week over the right-of-way, four times the permitted number of cars under the easement agreement.
In a trial brief filed this week, the tribe alleged BNSF could not in good faith hold up both its obligations outlined in the easement agreement and its contract to transport oil.
The Swinomish Indian Tribal Community is a federally recognized Indian tribe with more than 1,000 members. The Swinomish reservation is 65 miles north of Seattle on Fidalgo Island in Skagit County.
News researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.
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