BELLINGHAM, Wash. (AP) — Seven train cars carrying crude oil derailed Tuesday and five caught fire north of Seattle close to the Canadian border, authorities said.
The derailment occurred in the downtown Custer area, where nearby streets were closed and evacuations ordered during a large fire response, Whatcom County officials said on Twitter.
Sheriff Bill Elfo told The Seattle Times he doesn’t believe anyone had been injured. Later Tuesday afternoon, the Sheriff’s Office tweeted that the fire was under control, but the established evacuation zone would remain in effect.
Jenny Reich, who owns Whimsy Art Glass, was preparing to open her shop and told the Times that while she is accustomed to train noises, “all of a sudden it was a really big noise, and everything was shaking.”
A plume of black smoke obscured her view, emergency personnel arrived, and Reich said she was advised to evacuate her business. She grabbed her wallet, keys and dog and hit the road.
Home to five oil refineries, Washington state sees millions of gallons of crude oil move by rail through the state each week, coming from North Dakota and Alberta, Canada, according to the state Department of Ecology.
The cars derailed about 11:40 a.m., BNSF Railway said on Twitter.
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“BNSF is working with local authorities to assess and mitigate the situation,” the railway said. “The cause of the incident is under investigation. Our first priority is dealing with any safety issues.”
The state Department of Ecology said a command center had been set up at the scene with the railway and federal Environmental Protection Agency officials.
State traffic cameras showed a large black smoke plume. Interstate 5 was temporarily closed in the area in both directions.
Matt Krogh, director of U.S. Oil & Gas Campaigns for the environmental group Stand.earth, is based in Bellingham near the derailment and told The Associated Press he could see the smoke. He said the incident was another example of how transporting crude oil by train – especially in large numbers of tankers — is “very, very dangerous.”
He cited the 2013 fiery derailment of a train carrying crude in Lac Megantic, Quebec, which killed 47 people, and a 2016 derailment in Mosier, Oregon, along the Columbia River that caused people to evacuate.
Krogh said crude oil is volatile and there are often track maintenance concerns. Among other things, Krogh and his group would like to see a reduction in the number of tank cars allowed per shipment.
“I think we got lucky today,” he said, referring to the derailment in Custer.
Democratic U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., said in a statement Tuesday he is concerned about the derailment. Larsen is a senior member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
“I worked closely with the Obama administration to create strong rules to make the transport of oil by rail safer,” Larsen said. “Clearly there may be more work to do.”
Custer, a small town of several hundred people, is about 100 miles (161 kilometers) north of Seattle.
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