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Train carrying crude oil derails, catches fire in Whatcom County

Residents in Custer, Washington were asked to evacuate the area after a train carrying crude oil derailed around lunchtime on Tuesday.

Seven cars derailed in the 7500 block of Portal Way at 11:46 a.m. and a fire started in two of the derailed cars, according to BNSF. The fire is under control and the 3/4 mile evacuation was lifted about six hours later. See a map here.

Courtney Wallace, public information for BNSF, said the cause is under investigation.

Wallace said the train was about 108 cars long and was traveling northbound to the Phillips 66 Refinery in Ferndale. She did not know the origin on Tuesday. Two people were on board.

No injuries were reported. About 100 people were evacuated.

BNSF has set up a claim hotline number: 866-243-4784.

Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo said he wouldn’t speculate on any foul play.

“We haven’t been able to get close enough to make any evaluation of the cause or origination of the incident,” Elfo said.

However, Elfo confirmed that the sheriff’s office recently arrested two people for placing shunts on the railroad tracks just north of Bellingham.

Samantha Brooks and Ellen Reiche were arrested on Nov. 29 for allegedly placing a shunt on the tracks. The Justice Department says a shunt “disrupts the low level electrical current on the tracks and can disable various safety features.”

“Since January there have been 41 incidents of shunts placed on the BNSF tracks in Whatcom and Skagit counties—causing crossing guards to malfunction, interfering with automatic braking systems, and, in one case, causing the near-derailment of tanks of hazardous chemicals,” said U.S. Attorney Moran. “These crimes endanger our community. I commend the agents from Customs and Border Protection, FBI, BNSF Police, and state and local partners who prioritized stopping this criminal conduct.”

The FBI, which is at the scene of the derailment in Custer, has been investigating the placement of shunts on BNSF tracks since Jan. 2020.

I-5 reopened around 2 p.m. The freeway closed in both directions from Grandview Road to Birch Bay-Lynden, about a 4-mile stretch, for over two hours.

Eric Weston, who lives just outside the evacuation zone, said he was detoured off I-5 while on his way home. He said he could see the fire from I-5 and flames were 30 to 40 feet high.

“I saw a big black plume of smoke and thought it was a house fire until I got to the road block,” Weston told KIRO Radio.

He said he’s just outside of the evacuation perimeter and won’t evacuate unless emergency responders give him an order.

Julia Talamantes, who lives nearby, told KIRO Radio her house usually shakes when the trains go by.

“This time it went on for about 3-seconds longer than it normally does to at that point I thought, ‘Is that an earthquake.’ But no that really felt like a train,” Talamantes said.

She said she checked Facebook and a neighbor had already posted about the derailment. She went outside where firefighters quickly arrived and told them to evacuate.

A rail tank car can carry 30,000 gallons of crude oil — or about 700 barrels, according to a Forbes report.

Just over three years ago, an Amtrak train derailed in Dupot, Wash. killing three people and injuring 80 more.  That train was on its inaugural run on the new bypass on Dec. 18, 2017 when it entered a sharp curve at more than 80 mph. The posted limit for the curve is 30 mph. Investigators say the engineer at the controls had little experience on the route and missed speed limit signs warning him to slow down.

In 2014, a train carrying crude oil derailed near Interbay in Seattle. No injuries were reported and no oil spilled in that incident.

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