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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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BNSF train derails on Swinomish Reservation near Anacortes

March 16, 2023 Updated Thu., March 16, 2023 at 9:43 p.m.

A BNSF train derailed March 16 on the Swinomish Reservation near Anacortes, Wash.  (Ken Lambert/Seattle Times)
A BNSF train derailed March 16 on the Swinomish Reservation near Anacortes, Wash. (Ken Lambert/Seattle Times)
By Isabella Breda and Vonnai Phair Seattle Times

SWINOMISH RESERVATION – Excavators were clearing contaminated soil from the site of a BNSF train derailment near the Swinomish Channel on Thursday.

It was unclear how much fuel leaked into the soil from the two engines that toppled. The engines were equipped with tanks that each could hold 3,500 gallons of diesel, according to the state Department of Ecology. But Michael Sibley, an environmental scientist for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said at the scene no more than 2,500 gallons of diesel spilled.

No injuries, or harmful effects to water or wildlife, were reported, according to EPA and BNSF.

“This stuff happens every single day … This is kind of heightened because of the Ohio derailment and that’s what’s on everybody’s mind,” said Ty Keltner, an Ecology spokesperson, referencing last month’s derailment of the Norfolk Southern freight train carrying hazardous materials in East Palestine, Ohio.

The train was headed east toward Burlington after leaving a nearby oil refinery when both locomotives derailed a few minutes after midnight, Ecology spokesperson Scarlet Tang said. It’s believed the train’s oil cars were empty, according to Ecology.

A BNSF spokesperson said the cause of the derailment was under investigation. A conductor and engineer were on board at the time of the accident.

Alison Meyers, an Ecology response unit supervisor, said the second locomotive was spilling diesel fuel and lube oil around 6 a.m. Crews from BNSF and contractors cleared the cars from tracks and were working to stand up the two locomotives Thursday afternoon.

The spill happened on a berm near the Swinomish Channel. Most of the diesel leaked on land, the department said. The Swinomish Channel is 11 miles long and feeds into Padilla Bay to the north and Skagit Bay to the south. It’s partly dredged, historically connecting some shallow tidal sloughs and mudflats that are home to rearing habitat for juvenile Chinook and other salmonid species.

Swinomish police and Coast Guard drones were circling the water for any sign of sheen — or a thin glowing film of oil on top of the water.

“The train did not derail in the direction that would have put pollutants into water, so we’re very fortunate that most of what was spilled ended up on land,” said Ecology spokesperson Emily Tasaka said, adding the department does not see any effects to groundwater or waterways.

“The goal is to clean up the fuel that spilled before it really sinks down into the soil and contaminates the groundwater,” Tang said. “We’re especially mindful that this is an important Swinomish Indian Tribal Community resource.”

Swinomish police and fire crews and a hazmat team from a nearby oil refinery responded. Cleanup contractors placed a boom along the shoreline to contain any diesel fuel that might be migrating toward water, Meyers said.

Ecology had been leading the investigation and notified the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the Coast Guard.

The Department of Ecology receives more than 4,000 spill reports each year. Washington’s last oil spill caused by a train was a BNSF train derailment in Custer in December 2020, during which an estimated 28,962 gallons of oil were spilled.

“Today’s train derailment in Skagit County is a reminder that we have more work to do to keep our nation’s rail system, communities, rail workers and environment safe,” Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., Chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, said in a statement. “I am seeking additional information about this accident and will continue working to improve rail safety and protect our people, Tribes, and the Salish Sea ecosystem.”

Cantwell recently announced the Commerce Committee will be holding a hearing Wednesday on rail safety.

There were 280 derailments on mainline tracks in 2022, according to federal data reported by the New York Times.

Washington lawmakers this year introduced a bill to limit the length of trains moving through the state, a restriction proponents say could reduce the risk of incidents like the derailment last month in East Palestine, Ohio, that released hazardous chemicals.

The railroad here services local “industries” like oil refineries and lumber mills. Oil tanks often pass through this span of railroad as cargo.

The Swinomish Indian Tribal Community is a federally recognized Indian tribe with more than 1,000 members. The Swinomish reservation is 65 miles north of Seattle on Fidalgo Island in Skagit County.

Leaders from nearby Samish Indian Nation issued a statement early Thursday.

“This spill, while it may not be considered large through an environmental lens, signals a larger infrastructure issue as this is happening more and more frequently across the country,” Samish Chair Tom Wooten said. “Our top priority should be evaluating the maintenance of our infrastructure while hauling hazardous materials and continuing to wean away from fossil fuels and preserving our native lands.”

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