Oil cars catch fire in Custer Dec. 22; impacts were mostly mitigated 

WHATCOM — Two railway cars carrying crude oil caught fire after they derailed in Custer a little before noon Tuesday, Dec. 22.

Seven total cars derailed in the 7500 block of Portal Way at about 11:46 a.m., sending plumes of black smoke into the sky. The Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office established a half-mile evacuation zone around the incident and Interstate 5 was closed for about an hour in both directions as crews dealt with the derailment. The local evacuation lasted about five hours.

Officials still had not given a cause of the derailment this week. A first press conference involving the Washington State Patrol, BNSF, the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office and the Washington State Department of Ecology provided some details on the situation.

The train was heading northbound to the Phillips 66 Ferndale Refinery hauling crude oil with two crew members of the train on board. No one was injured in the derailment and fire. 

“We’ve not been able to get close enough to the site to make an evaluation as to what any cause or the origin was of the incident,” said Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo within 24 hours of the crash.

Whatcom County Executive Satpal Sidhu issued a statement regarding the derailment. “It will likely be some time before we have answers to questions regarding the cause of the derailment and fire,” the statement read. “I expect that investigation will begin in the very near future, as will the assessment of property damage and environmental impact.”

Elfo said it was too early to speak to any connections between the Dec. 22 derailment and the late-November arrests of two people suspected of placing disruptive devices called “shunts” on Whatcom and Skagit railroad tracks.

Primary objectives were to ensure the safety of responders and the community, and to secure the remaining sources of oil at the scene, said a state Ecology spokesperson. Crews would be removing crude oil from the remaining tank cars on scene through the weekend in preparation for their eventual removal from the site. 

Some rail cars were being removed early this week. At a media briefing Dec. 23, rail and government officials said crews were continuing their cleanup and investigation of the tanker car derailment, but had identified no likely cause yet.

It’s believed that no crude oil from the crash migrated offsite into surface water sources, said Dave Byers, a response manager with the state Department of Ecology.

Any contamination of soil and groundwater continues to be looked at, he said. “Robust air monitoring” showed no toxicity above background levels in the air, Byers said, and the accident did not result in any apparent injury to humans or wildlife.

Lummi Natural Resources has been included in the response, Byers said, joining representatives of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Federal Bureau of Investigation, Whatcom County and local entitities, along with BNSF Railway.

The half-hour briefing was in the county Emergency Coordination Center near Bellingham International Airport.

Byers said that state oil-spill contingency planning and exercises helped with this response, and he also noted advance notification of what is coming into the state by rail and federally mandated improved rail tanker cars as factors mitigating any worse outcome. 

By Wednesday, the scene of Tuesday’s derailment in Custer was closed at about 1,000 feet. Many vehicles and personnel of the National Response Center, the incidence response arm of EPA, were present, and tanker trucks looked to be ready for hauling off any soil or liquid as needed.

Elfo said that, due to simulated exercises in the past with first-responders and the Cherry Point refineries, the response to this incident was “well-coordinated and efficient.”

Three train cars ruptured, said a BNSF spokeswoman.

But no one was giving any indication of possible cause of the crash.

The phone number to make claims in regard to the derailment is 1-866-243-4784.

Related: Whatcom County Council member Rud Browne is calling for new language in rules regulating heavy industry at Cherry Point in the wake of last week’s oil train derailment, The Bellingham Herald reported.

Browne wants wording that would protect local governments from liability in the event of future derailments.

He pointed to the 2013 oil train derailment in Quebec, Canada, that resulted in the death of 47 people and the destruction of 30 buildings.

“If you don’t know who’s going to pay the bill, then the answer is us,” Browne is quoted as saying.