A train carrying nearly 100 cars of crude oil went off the track beneath the Magnolia Bridge in Seattle’s Interbay neighborhood early this morning.
Nothing leaked when five of the train’s 102 cars went off the track about 2 a.m., said BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas. The derailment posed no public threat, he said.
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The train, going slower than 5 mph, was pulling out of the BNSF rail yard when the wheels of the second of two locomotives in front went off the track. A car loaded with sand also went off the track, Melonas said.
The next three cars, filled with crude oil, also derailed. The first car was leaning at a 45-degree angle, the second at a 20-degree angle and the wheels of the third car where just off the track, Melonas said. The tank cars carry an estimated 28,000 gallons of Bakken crude oil each.
No one was injured.
An adjacent rail line remains open and other rail traffic will be able to pass through the area.
“Emergency responders were on site within five minutes of the incident,” Melonas said.
The train was loaded at Bakken, North Dakota, and was bound for the refinery at Anacortes, Melonas said.
He said that the tanker cars that derailed are the newer enhanced safety models with special safeguards installed. The train also was traveling on newly upgraded track.
Melonas said an investigation is underway as to the cause of the derailment, despite travel at such low speed, using state of the art track and cars.
It will be five to eight hours for the cars and the locomotive to be put back on the rails and moved from the site.
On Wednesday, the federal government proposed rules that would phase out tens of thousands of older tank cars carrying crude oil and other highly flammable liquids. Every member of the Seattle City Council on Wednesday signed a letter to the U.S. Secretary of Transportation requesting an emergency order to prohibit the shipment of Bakken crude oil through Seattle in older DOT-111 tank train cars. “Banning the shipment of highly flammable crude oil in legacy DOT-111 tank cars is necessary to abate the unsafe conditions posing an imminent hazard to human life, communities and the environment,” the letter states.
Concerns about the impacts of increased oil vessel and train traffic are sure to be stoked by the morning derailment. It came the same day as a hearing and rally scheduled in Seattle on increased oil transport to Cherry Point. The hearing, about a dock expansion proposed by BP at its Cherry Point refinery, will be held by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at the Federal Center South Galaxy Room, at 4735 East Marginal Way South in Seattle from 7 to 9 p.m. A rally against the proposal is taking place across the street from 6:15 to 6:45 p.m.
Melonas said the push back is against a transportation system with a proven safety record: there have been no hazmat-related fatalities on BNSF tracks in any of its northern tier operations, from North Dakota, to the West Coast ports, since 1981, he said.
Oil has been shipped by rail through Washington for decades, Melonas said. What’s new is the use of so-called unit trains: trains made up of more than 100 cars, going from a single destination to a single destination. Unit trains loaded with oil have been deployed by BNSF on Washington tracks for the past two years to meet demand, Melonas said.
Every 24 hours, about two and a half unit trains on average loaded with 100 or so cars of oil rolls through Washington, Melonas said. About 70 percent of the BNSF cars in use in the Northwest are of a new design, with safety improvements including thicker steel construction and safety mechanisms around tank valves, Melonas said.
The railroad has spent $235 million on track improvements in Washington State alone this year, Melonas said. The railroad is expanding operations to meet demand, including 17 miles of new track between Pasco and Spokane, and hiring about 600 people.
So far there have been no spills in Washington by unit trains carrying oil, said Lisa Copeland, spokeswoman for the state Department of Ecology. But concern is heightened along with shipping volumes.
U.S. Sen. Patty Murray this week held a hearing on safety issues related to rail transport of crude oil. Those shipments are expected to increase from 55 million barrels of crude this year to more than 200 million annually, because of proposals to expand oil refining and shipping in communities across the state, including Seattle, Spokane, Bellingham and Vancouver.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee just last month called for a review of state readiness to respond to an oil-train spill, which is underway and will result in a final report in December, Copeland said. The state has a plan in place to respond to oil spills in water, but not along train tracks, she said.
“We have an excellent response capability on the marine side,” Copeland said. “But it wasn’t until 2012 that we had our first (unit) oil train. This is all kind of new to us. We are looking at where we are well postured, and where do we need improvements, what gaps can we identify. We need to keep our communities safe if we are going to move oil through our state in this way.”
She said Ecology staff were on the scene monitoring the derailment this morning, and had deployed oil-containment booms, just in case.
Accident investigators have complained for decades that older tank cars are too easily punctured or ruptured, spilling their contents when derailed. Since 2008, there have been 10 significant derailments in the U.S. and Canada in which crude oil has spilled from ruptured tank cars, often igniting and resulting in huge fireballs. The worst was a runaway oil train that exploded in the Quebec town of Lac-Megantic a year ago, killing 47 people.
Melonas said the BNSF, operating in Washington since 1873, is very sensitive to safety concerns. “From an industry perspective, we learn from these events elsewhere. Safety is our number one priority.”