Train carrying crude oil derails, catches fire in Whatcom County

Dec 22, 2020, 12:25 PM | Updated: 5:29 pm

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.

Local News

unemployment benefits...
Nicole Jennings

People quitting over vax mandate may qualify for unemployment benefits

Do people quitting their jobs over the vaccine mandate qualify for unemployment benefits? That all depends on a certain set of circumstances.
20 hours ago
covid memorial...
MyNorthwest Staff

King County councilmember proposes memorial for lives lost to COVID

King County Councilmember Reagan Dunn is proposing the creation of a public art memorial to honor those who lost their lives to COVID-19. 
20 hours ago
Kathryn Altena

Washington to participate in Great ShakeOut earthquake drill for 10th year

At 10:21 a.m. on Oct. 21 will be the annual Great ShakeOut earthquake and tsunami drill in Washington. Practice how you would drop, cover, and hold on.
20 hours ago
King County Metro...
Nick Bowman

King County reports 97% compliance with worker vaccine mandate

King County reported Tuesday that 97% of its employees have submitted paperwork in compliance with its vaccine mandate; 92% are fully vaccinated. 
20 hours ago
MyNorthwest Staff

Heavy rain, wind from tropical ‘superstorm’ headed to Northwest

A cyclone that began as a tropical superstorm is expected to reach waters off the coast of Washington state on Thursday.
20 hours ago
City Hall Park Seattle...
Nick Bowman

King County Council to forge ahead on bid to acquire troubled City Hall Park

King County Councilmembers voted 7-2 on Tuesday to approve legislation to explore options to assume control over Seattle's City Hall Park.
20 hours ago

Sponsored Articles


Medicare open enrollment for 2022 starts Oct. 15 and SHIBA can help!

Washington State Office of the Insurance Commissioner SPONSORED — Medicare’s Open Enrollment Period, also called the Annual Election Period, is Oct. 15 to Dec. 7. During this time, people enrolled in Medicare can: Switch from Original Medicare to a Medicare Advantage plan and vice versa. Join, drop or switch a Part D prescription drug plan, […]

How to Have a Stress-Free Real Estate Experience

The real estate industry has adapted and sellers are taking full advantage of new real estate models. One of which is Every Door Real Estate.
IQ Air

How Poor Air Quality Is Affecting Our Future Athletes

You cannot control your child’s breathing environment 100% of the time, but you can make a huge impact.
Swedish Health Services

Special Coverage: National Prostate Cancer Awareness Month

There are a wide variety of treatment options available for men with prostate cancer. The most technologically advanced treatment option in the Northwest is Stereotactic Body Radiation Therapy using the CyberKnife platform.
Marysville Police Department

Police Opportunities in a Growing, Supportive Washington Community

Marysville PD is looking for both lateral and entry level officers. Begin or continue your career in law enforcement for a growing, supportive community.

Small, Minority-Owned Businesses in King County and Pierce County Can Now Apply For $10,000 Relief Grants Through Comcast RISE

Businesses in King County and Pierce County can apply beginning on October 1, 2021, at www.ComcastRISE.com for a chance to receive a $10,000 relief grant.
Train carrying crude oil derails, catches fire in Whatcom County