Authorities said seven train cars carrying crude oil derailed and five caught fire, sending a column of black smoke billowing into the sky north of Seattle near the Canadian border.
Whatcom County officials said on Twitter that derailment in the downtown area of Custer blocked adjacent streets and triggered evacuation orders during a major fire response. Highway 5 has been temporarily closed in the area in both directions.
Later the Whatcom County sheriff’s office wrote on Twitter that the fires were under control and an evacuation order had been lifted but the barriers would remain in place. The sheriff’s office added that fires at the site remained active, and residents were told to stay inside as soon as they returned to their homes.
“Everyone is in danger in a scene like this,” Sheriff Bill Elvo said at a news conference, “but fortunately no injuries were reported.”
Jenny Reich, who owns Whimsy Art Glass, was preparing to open her store and told the Seattle Times that while she was used to vocal training, “Suddenly, it was a really big noise, and everything was vibrating.”
Black smoke obscured her view, emergency personnel arrived, and Reich said she was advised to vacate her job. I grabbed her wallet, keys, and dog and left.
Home to five oil refineries, Washington state sees millions of gallons of crude oil moving across the state every week, coming from North Dakota and Alberta, Canada, according to the state’s Department of the Environment.
Courtney Wallace, a spokeswoman for BNSF Railways, said at the press conference that the seven cars were derailed at around 11:46 am Tuesday morning. It said two people were on the 108-car train that was heading from North Dakota to the Phillips 66’s Ferndale Refinery.
“The BNSF is working with local authorities to assess and mitigate the situation,” the company said on Twitter. The cause of the accident is still being investigated.
The state environment ministry said a command center was set up at the scene with railway officials and the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
Matt Krug, director of US oil and gas campaigns for Environmental Stand.earth Group, is based in Bellingham near Derail, and is told he can see smoke. He said the accident was another example of transporting crude oil by train – especially in large numbers of tankers – “very, very dangerous.”
He cited the 2013 fiery derailment of a train carrying crude oil in Lake Megantic, Quebec, which killed 47 people, and a 2016 derailment in Moser, Oregon, along the Columbia River, causing people to evacuate.
Krug said crude oil is volatile and there are often maintenance concerns. Among other things, Krug and his group would like to see a decrease in the number of tank wagons allowed per cargo.
“I think we were lucky today,” he said, pointing to a deviation from Custer’s path.
Democratic Representative Rick Larsen of Washington state said in a statement on Tuesday that he was concerned about the deviation. Larsen is a senior member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
“I have worked closely with the Obama administration to put in place strong rules to make rail transportation safer,” said Larsen. “It is clear that there may be more work to be done.”
Custer, a small town with a population of several hundred, is located about 100 miles (161 kilometres) north of Seattle.