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Cleanup at site of Whatcom County train derailment expected to take months

A firefighter sprays foam on a burning, derailed train car Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2020, in Custer, Wash. Officials say seven train cars carrying crude oil derailed and five caught fire north of Seattle and close to the Canadian border. Whatcom County officials said the derailment occurred in the downtown Custer area, where streets were closed and evacuations ordered during a large fire response. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

As cleanup is underway in Custer, Wash., after a crude oil train derailed Tuesday, the news from Unified Command was mostly positive Wednesday, with reports of only minimal impacts to the public and environment thus far into the investigation.

Train carrying crude oil derails, catches fire in Whatcom County

The representative from BNSF, Justin Piper, said during a Wednesday press conference about the cleanup effort that there has been a successful integration with first responders and contract teams to respond to the fire and oil spill. Overnight Tuesday and into Wednesday, Piper says the team has been very successful in extinguishing the fires, with the majority put out “early on.”

“Our goal leading into this and throughout this will be to ensure the health and safety of our responders and the public,” Piper said.

The team is also working to recover product from hold cars and the cars involved in the incident, and anything that spilled into the nearby ditch or may have contaminated water.

“[We’re] clearly thinking about what next steps are for those cars,” Piper added, explaining that once emptied, contractors and teams will be brought in to help remove the cars from the site and clean them.

“As far as crude oil derailments, fires, and spills go, this incident could probably not have occurred in a better location with regards to minimizing off-site impacts,” said David Byers, the state Department of Ecology’s on-scene coordinator.

So far, Byers reports that no offsite impacts of oil have been found. The cleanup process will continue through more phases in the coming days, with the general timeline for the entire cleanup expected to be months-long.

The team is continuing to look for potential impacts to wetlands and groundwater and is developing a detailed sample and analysis plan. They have been and will continue to monitor the air for any toxic smoke particulates or other impacts. As far as soil contamination, that’s likely, Byers says, which he added will transition to a longer cleanup.

There have been no wildlife impacts found and no injuries to the public or first responders. There were two crew members on the train and they were not injured.

The rail cars in this incident were improved rail cars, which Byers says likely helped reduce the impact. There are contingency plans in place to describe how to respond to an incident like this in Washington state. Byers said just two weeks ago, they had what they refer to as a “worst-case exercise,” which he believes helped prepare Unified Command to respond to this derailment in a coordinated manner.

Lawmakers worry about crude oil transport after train derailment in Custer

If you or your property are affected by the derailment, contact the claims number at 1-866-243-4784.

This is an ongoing investigation and there is no known cause of the incident at this time.

KIRO Radio reporter Nicole Jennings contributed to this report.

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