On December 22, 2020, seven train cars on a 108-car BNSF train carrying Bakken crude oil derailed in Custer, Washington, north of Seattle. Five of the cars caught fire and sent off a large plume of black smoke, prompted temporary evacuation orders within a half-mile of the wreck, and shut down nearby streets. Thankfully, no injuries to the public or responders were reported. However, the derailment and fire spilled oil into the soil and released toxins into the air.
It is unknown how much oil was spilled and clean up of the contaminated soil around the site could take months. So far, no oil has been reported in nearby waterways and roving air monitors used by firefighters and the Department of Ecology didn’t detect any threats to first responders or the public from hazardous fumes, such as benzene.
Washington state is home to five oil refineries and millions of gallons of crude oil are transported by rail through the state each week. The rail line that carries mile plus long trains filled with dangerous crude oil travels alongside the scenic Columbia River with dangerously threatened salmon, through hundreds of towns, underneath downtown Seattle, and over salmon bearing rivers.
The cause of the derailment is unknown and both federal and local authorities are investigating the incident. Just a month earlier, two people were arrested and charged with a terrorist attack on train tracks, allegedly placing shunts on BNSF track. Shunts consist of a wire strung across tracks which mimics the electrical signal of a train and can cause trains to automatically brake or disable railroad crossing guards. This attack was intended to disrupt plans for a natural gas pipeline across British Columbia.
This is just another example of how dangerous the transportation of crude oil by train is and the constant threat it carries to our environment. In 2013, a train carrying crude oil in Lac-Magantic, Quebec derailed downtown, resulting in a fire and explosion that killed 47 people and more than 30 buildings were destroyed. In 2016, a Union Pacific train derailed and spilled 42,000 gallons of oil near Mosier, Oregon along the Columbia River. Safer transportation standards need to be put in place by both local and federal agencies to prevent any more derailments.