On two-month anniversary of Custer derailment, site appears unharmed

Feb 23, 2021, 11:30 AM
train derailment, Custer derailment...
A train derailment in Custer, Wash. in December of 2020. (Photo courtesy of the state Department of Ecology)
(Photo courtesy of the state Department of Ecology)

This past Monday marked two months since the Burlington Northern Santa Fe train derailment in Custer that spilled about 29,000 gallons of crude oil.

Department of Ecology experts say the area appears to be healing just fine.

Of the 29,000 gallons spilled — the equivalent of about what one rail car carries — between 5,400 and 8,000 gallons are believed to have not been recovered.

“Some of it was burned up, some of it evaporated … and some of it spilled on the ground and into the soil,” explained Ty Keltner, a spokesperson for Ecology’s Spills Prevention, Preparedness and Response Program.

Train carrying crude oil derails, catches fire in Whatcom County

Within the initial few days following the accident, ecologists were able to determine that the oil had not flowed into local bodies of water or into the woods, where it could have potentially harmed animals. This was because the crash happened in a kind of basin, allowing the oil to be contained.

If it had to happen, said Rob Walls, a response unit supervisor for Ecology’s Northwest Region, it happened in the best way possible.

“Everything was how it needed to be to mitigate significant damage,” said Walls, who was on the scene shortly after. “All the stars aligned.”

He explained that the weather that day — very cold and without wind — also helped to minimize the risk of explosion and keep the toxins from traveling too far in the air.

Additionally, the first responders had recently practiced for an emergency just like this one.

“These types of events are rare, but when they do happen, you don’t want to be meeting people for the first time,” said Courtney Wallace, a spokesperson for BNSF Railway. “That’s why training is so critical …  it really paid off very well.”

Working with the Department of Ecology, BNSF has been monitoring air quality in the area since the derailment and has consistently found normal numbers.

“There’s no significant levels of toxic vapors,” Walls said.

Cheryl Ann Bishop, a spokesperson for Ecology’s Toxics Cleanup Program, said BNSF has been diligent about making sure there is no lasting damage to nature in Custer.

“They are working on it, we haven’t had to nudge them,” Bishop said. “They immediately started dealing with the problem.”

As of last week, Burlington Northern Santa Fe is removing contaminants from the soil and has installed seven wells to monitor groundwater, the one type of water that could possibly have been harmed in the derailment.

Wallace said that so far, the groundwater readings have all looked good.

“It’s been a really great partnership,” Wallace said of the ongoing monitoring efforts with Ecology.

In the meantime, the FBI and NTSB are investigating what could have caused the accident. The NTSB told KIRO Radio the investigation could take up to a year-and-a-half.

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On two-month anniversary of Custer derailment, site appears unharmed