Category Archives: Derailment

Latest bomb train accident shows failures of Trump deregulation

Another Bomb Train Accident Highlights Regulatory Failures

Desmogblog.com, by Justin Mikulka, December 23, 2020
Image: Oil train “pipeline on wheels” rolls through Watertown, Wisconsin. Credit: Justin Mikulka

A train carrying over 100 cars of volatile Bakken oil derailed in Washington state, causing the evacuation of the town of Custer. At least two of the train cars ruptured and the oil ignited and burned — reminding us once again why these dangerous trains are known as bomb trains. 

Matt Krogh of Stand.earth has been leading efforts to keep these dangerous trains off the tracks for years, so he was well aware of the potential deadly consequences of oil train accidents in populated areas. Krogh could see the smoke from this latest accident from his home in Bellingham, Washington.

I think we got lucky today,” Krogh told the Associated Press, echoing the words of others after previous close calls with oil trains — several of which were highlighted in the DeSmog piece Luck Rides the Rails. 

It’s easy to feel lucky after a near miss with an oil train derailment and fire near a populated area because in 2013 an oil train full of Bakken oil derailed and caused catastrophic fires and explosions in the Canadian town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, — killing 47 people and destroying much of the downtown area. Downtown Lac-Mégantic has yet to be rebuilt more than seven years later.

Regulators Argue Safety Is Not A Pretext for Regulation

The state of Washington is well aware of the dangers the oil trains pose to the public and the environment and have attempted to address this issue with state regulations. Washington has five oil refineries that all are highly dependent on Bakken crude by rail. Crude-by-rail movements in the U.S. and Canada fluctuate significantly based on market conditions, but the Washington refineries are one destination for Bakken oil that maintain consistent demand for the oil, and rail is the only option to get it to Washington — so the risks to Washington residents who live near the train tracks are ever present.

In 2016 a Bakken oil train derailed in Mosier, Oregon along the Columbia River highlighting the risk the trains pose in the Pacific Northwest. Many trains bring the Bakken oil through Oregon and the Columbia River gorge to Washington.

In my 2019 book Bomb Trains: How Industry Greed and Regulatory Failure Put the Public at Risk I explain why the trains carrying highly volatile Bakken oil are dangerous and the simple steps the oil and rail industries could take to remove these dangers. All are steps the industries have successfully lobbied against despite the risks to the public and the 47 fatalities in Lac-Mégantic.

Washington regulators and politicians tried to take the most important safety step by passing a law that limited the volatility of the crude oil being moved by rail through Washington, a move that would greatly reduce the risk of fires and explosions during derailments. A rule proposed at the end of the Obama administration to limit the volatility was officially withdrawn by the Trump administration in May of 2020.


If the federal government won’t act to protect public safety and adopt a safer nationwide standard, we will adopt our own,” state Sen. Andy Billig (D-Spokane) said in March 2019 of the bill he sponsored. “There is just too much to lose — for people and our environment.”

As DeSmog reported in May, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) did act, but that action was to overrule Washington’s proposed regulation with the argument that safety regulations could not get in the way of markets — arguing that a state can not use “safety as a pretext for inhibiting market growth.”

New Administration May Offer Chance at Safety Regulations

The act by the Trump administration’s regulators of withdrawing the proposed federal rule to limit oil volatility for transportation of crude oil by rail by was consistent with the official stated policy of deregulation with regards to rail safety.

This policy led to the removal of the most important safety regulation for oil-by-rail transportation that was enacted during the Obama era, which would have required oil trains to have modernized braking systems. The Trump administration removed that regulation in December of 2017.

The incoming Biden administration will have the opportunity to finally address the known dangers of moving hazardous oil, ethanol and liquefied natural gas (LNG) by rail. Reinstating the braking requirement and regulating oil volatility would be important first steps. Two other areas that would improve safety would be limiting train lengths and requiring tank cars that weren’t easily punctured in derailments.

DeSmog has reported on how longer trains derail more often and yet there are no regulations for train length for trains moving hazardous materials. Most of the major derailments involving oil trains have involved trains with more than 100 cars, like the train in Custer.

The 2015 regulations for new tank cars for oil trains required the use of new DOT-117 model tank cars. As they did in this latest derailment, these tank cars have failed in all of the major derailments involving the cars hauling oil and ethanol.

Four years of the Trump administration overseeing the rail industry has put the public at even greater risk. The administration’s reckless approval of LNG-by-rail without proper safety testing or new regulations greatly increases the future danger to the public if the LNG industry starts using rail as a major mode of transportation.

Pete Buttigieg has been nominated to be the next Secretary of Transportation where he will have oversight of rail safety. At the very least Buttigeig could begin to protect the public by simply reinstating the oil-by-rail safety regulations that have been repealed, and then moving forward with the proposed regulations to limit the volatility of any crude oil moved by rail.

Until the oil and rail industries are properly regulated, the public will continue to be at great risk from bomb trains and will have to trust in luck to keep them safe.

Oil train derailed near site of earlier terrorist attempt, officials say

KIMA News Yakima, by LISA BAUMANN | Associated Press, Wednesday, December 23, 2020

BELLINGHAM, Wash. (AP) — Federal and local authorities were investigating a fiery oil car train derailment north of Seattle near where two people were arrested last month and accused of attempting a terrorist attack on train tracks to disrupt plans for a natural gas pipeline.

Seven train cars carrying crude oil derailed and five caught fire Tuesday, sending a large plume of black smoke into the sky close to the Canadian border. There were no injuries in the derailment about 100 miles (161 kilometers) north of Seattle

Officials were asked about recent attempts to sabotage oil trains, but they said the investigation was just beginning.

“We’ve not been able to get close enough to the site to make an evaluation,” Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo said late Tuesday.

Officials with the National Transportation Safety Board along with the FBI and other federal, state and local agencies were on the scene.

During a news conference Wednesday, officials spoke about their disaster planning they had done to prepare for incidents similar to what occurred with the train derailment. They also spoke about how the impact of the derailment to the surrounding environment could have been worse.

“As far as crude oil derailments and fires, this could not have occurred in a better location with regard to minimizing environmental impact,” said David Byers, who manages disaster response for the Washington Department of Ecology.

Last month federal authorities in Seattle charged two people with a terrorist attack on train tracks, saying they placed “shunts” on Burlington Northern Santa Fe tracks. “Shunts” consist of a wire strung across the tracks, mimicking the electrical signal of a train. The devices can cause trains to automatically brake and can disable railroad crossing guards.

CUSTER, WA – DECEMBER 22: In this aerial view from a drone, a train carrying crude oil burns while derailed on December 22, 2020 in Custer, Washington. BNSF Railway Company released a statement saying the train was traveling north when seven tank cars derailed, resulting in a fire and evacuations of the area. (Photo by David Ryder/Getty Images)

Authorities said the pair were opposed to the construction of a natural gas pipeline across British Columbia when they interfered with the operation of a railroad in Washington state.

The FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force has said there have been dozens of such cases involving BNSF tracks since January, with a message claiming responsibility posted on an anarchist website early this year.

In one, shunts were placed in three locations in northwest Washington on Oct. 11, prompting emergency brakes to engage on a train that was hauling hazardous materials and flammable gas. The braking caused a bar connecting the train’s cars to fail; the cars became separated and could have derailed, authorities said.

CUSTER, WA – DECEMBER 22: A train carrying crude oil burns while derailed on December 22, 2020 in Custer, Washington. BNSF Railway Company released a statement saying the train was traveling north when seven tank cars derailed, resulting in a fire and evacuations of the area. (Photo by David Ryder/Getty Images)

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.

The seven cars derailed at about 11:46 a.m. Tuesday. Two people were on board the 108-car train headed from North Dakota to the Ferndale Refinery, owned by Phillips 66.

Critics of oil transport by rail car said Tuesday’s incident was another example of the dangerousness of the practice. They cited the 2013 fiery derailment of a train carrying crude in Lac Megantic, Quebec, which killed 47 people.

The scene in the Custer area after a train derailed Tuesday morning. (Photo: Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office)

Washington state passed a law that imposed safety restrictions on oil shipments by rail, but it was blocked earlier this year by the federal government.

The U.S. Department of Transportation in May determined federal law preempts the Washington law adopted last year, which mandated crude from the oil fields of the Northern Plains have more of its volatile gases removed prior to being loaded onto rail cars.

Matt Krogh, director of U.S. Oil & Gas Campaigns for the environmental group Stand.earth, said it is difficult for state and local officials to place restrictions on shipments of oil by train.

“Our hands are tied in many ways because of federal pre-emption,” Krogh said.

Oil Train derails, burns near home of environmental activist

[Editor: With help from neighbors near and far, including Stand.earth, we stopped our own Valero Benicia Refinery from bringing tar-sands oil trains across California in 2016!  – R.S.]

Train cars carrying crude oil derail, burn north of Seattle

San Francisco Chronicle, by Lisa Baumann, AP, Dec. 22, 2020
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.
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. Photo: Elaine Thompson, AP

BELLINGHAM, Wash. (AP) — Seven train cars carrying crude oil derailed Tuesday and five caught fire, sending a large black plume of smoke into the sky north of Seattle close to the Canadian border, authorities said.

The derailment in the downtown Custer area closed nearby streets and spurred evacuation orders during a large fire response, Whatcom County officials said on Twitter. Interstate 5 was temporarily closed in the area in both directions.

Later Tuesday, the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office tweeted that the fires were under control and the evacuation order had been lifted but roadblocks would remain in place. Fires at the site remained active, the Sheriff’s Office added, and residents were asked to stay inside once they returned home.

“Everyone’s in danger at a scene like this, but fortunately there were no injuries,” Sheriff Bill Elfo said at a news conference.

Jenny Reich, who owns Whimsy Art Glass, was preparing to open her shop and told The Seattle Times that while she is accustomed to train noises, “all of a sudden it was a really big noise, and everything was shaking.”

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 left.

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 seven cars derailed at about 11:46 a.m. Tuesday, BNSF Railway spokesperson Courtney Wallace said at the news conference. She said two people were on board the 108-car train headed from North Dakota to the Ferndale Refinery, owned by Phillips 66.

“BNSF is working with local authorities to assess and mitigate the situation,” the railway said on Twitter. “The cause of the incident is under investigation.”

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.

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 was 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.

Benicia cares – Oil Train derails and catches fire in Custer, Washington

[Editor: Thanks goodness we stopped our own Valero Benicia Refinery from all this in 2016!  See also coverage of this Washington story in the San Francisco Chronicle.  – R.S.]

Evacuations ordered as train carrying crude oil derails, burns near Custer

Bellingham Herald, by Denver Pratt, December 22, 2020

A train derailed and caught fire in the Custer area Tuesday morning and residents and visitors within a half-mile were being evacuated, according to Whatcom County Public Works, the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office and Washington State Patrol.

The northbound train carrying crude oil derailed around 11:40 a.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 22, in the Custer area, according to Courtney Wallace, a Burlington Northern Santa Fe spokesperson, and the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office. It is a BNSF train and track, Wallace said.

The train derailed near the 7500 block of Portal Way, according to the sheriff’s office on Twitter. The sheriff’s office evacuated people within a half-mile of the derailment. Shortly before 5 p.m. Tuesday, the sheriff’s office said on Twitter that the evacuation order was lifted for local residents of Custer. Once residents return home, they are asked to shelter in place and stay inside, the sheriff’s office said. Residents must show proof of residency in order to return home, the sheriff’s office said.

Roadblocks in the area will remain in place.

Seven railway cars derailed from the train and a fire started in two of the seven derailed cars, the sheriff’s office said. The fire was under control as of 3 p.m., but a few were still active as of 5 p.m., the sheriff’s office said.

There have been no reported injuries at this time, Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office Division of Emergency Management Deputy Director John Gargett told The Bellingham Herald about 2 p.m. Tuesday.

Gargett said it’s unclear at this time whether there was damage to nearby structures or buildings. While he didn’t know the exact number of people who were evacuated, he said evacuations were ordered within a half-mile around the center of Custer.

He said the train was carrying Bakken crude oil, so evacuations were ordered out of an abundance of caution. People are asked to avoid the incident site, as it’s not safe to approach, the sheriff’s office said.

BNSF has set up a claims hotline for people who have been impacted by the evacuation at 1-866-243-4784.

Wallace, with BNSF, said the first priority is safety issues and BNSF is working with local authorities to assess and mitigate the situation.

She said the cause of the derailment is under investigation.

“Our thoughts are with those who have been affected by this incident,” BNSF said on Twitter.

Washington State Patrol Trooper Heather Axtman said there were still a few small pools of oil on fire as of 2:45 p.m. on Tuesday. Axtman said fire officials determined the fires would burn themselves out in a little while. Axtman said at this time it’s believed there was no damage to nearby structures from the derailment.