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.
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.
We are working to evacuate a 1/2 mile radius from the site of the derailment. Train cars are on fire. I-5 is closed in both directions from Grandview to Birch Bay Lynden Rd. Train cars are on fire.
AGAIN, PLEASE AVOID THE AREA. pic.twitter.com/OuqC5NAuoE
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.
Future Vice President Kamala Harris remembered in Benicia for her strong support
Joe Biden’s nominee for Vice President, California Senator Kamala Harris, has a remarkable connection for many of us here in Benicia. Her support for a safe and healthy world was incredibly important in the 2016 defeat of Valero Benicia’s dirty and dangerous oil train proposal. The story should be told now, to honor Harris’ candidacy and to encourage support for a Biden/Harris ticket among all who care about clean air, land and water.
During our 3½ year battle to defeat Valero Benicia’s Crude By Rail proposal, then California Attorney General Kamala Harris wrote two letters challenging Valero’s project and the City of Benicia’s environmental review. Her support was critical in support of local organizing efforts by Benicians for a Safe and Healthy Community and others far and wide.
Harris’ first letter came on October 2, 2014. The letter is summarized and linked here:
A year and a half later, on April 14, 2016, Harris sent a second letter asserting that Benicia’s Planning Commission and City Council have every right to deny a land use permit for Valero’s proposed Crude by Rail offloading rack. I highlighted her convincing prosecutorial language in my headline:
APRIL 15, 2016, By Roger Straw – California Attorney General Kamala Harris: letter disagrees with City of Benicia staff, consultants and Valero Today the City of Benicia received a letter from California Attorney General Kamala Harris disagreeing with City staff, consultants and Valero Refinery. The letter asserts that Benicia’s Planning Commission and City Council have every right to deny a … Continue reading CALIFORNIA ATTORNEY GENERAL: “For Benicia to turn a blind eye…”→
And again, her challenge was picked up by media outlets far and wide. A sampling:
JANUARY 18, 2014, Repost from Diane Bailey’s blog, Switchboard, Natural Resources Defense Council California Attorney General Tells Major Oil Terminal Developer, WesPac, to Hold Up in Pittsburg Posted January 17, 2014 by Diane Bailey in Environmental Justice, Health and the Environment, Moving Beyond Oil The California Attorney General, Kamala D. Harris, sent a stark letter to the City of Pittsburg this week warning of … Continue reading Diane Bailey: California Attorney General Letter, Protests in Pittsburg 1/21/14→
My U.S. readers might wonder why I cover oil train news from Canada. Answer: Our Canada neighbors are important – we are of course, a global people. AND… what happens in production and transport of Canadian tar-sands oil is newsworthy “uprail” news for our west coast states. Canadian and US ports are lined up for export, and our refineries would love to receive the icky substance by rail.
My Benicia readers might wonder why I continue to cover oil train news at all – didn’t we successfully defeat Valero’s dirty and dangerous proposal in 2016? Answer: well, Valero is poised to buy our 2020 mayor and council elections. Who’s to say they won’t try for crude by rail again? Back in 2014-2016, Valero expected to win approval, and invested heavily in the necessary infrastructure for offloading oil trains. Last I knew, they stored the heavy equipment offsite here in Benicia’s Industrial Park. Has it been sold or moved?
IMPORTANT IN TODAY’S INTERNATIONAL NEWS…
Rail Lines Shut Down, Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) Still on Gidimt’en Land as Miller Meets Tyendinaga Blockaders
Rail lines across most of Canada remained shut down this week, RCMP were still a threatening presence on Gidimt’en land in British Columbia, Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller met with Tyendinaga Mohawk protesters, and a flurry of news coverage traced the widening impacts of a blockade triggered by a pipeline company pushing an unwanted natural gas pipeline through unceded Indigenous territory.
Over the weekend, the Tyendinaga blockade of the CN Rail track near Belleville, Ontario continued after the community concluded a day-long meeting with Miller. Blockades or demonstrations were under way near Rivière-du-Loup, Quebec, at the Rainbow Bridge in Niagara Falls, and on the Prince Edward Island side of the Confederation Bridge, and shut down the Thousand Islands Bridge between Ontario and New York State for 2½ hours. Days earlier, a court injunction barred Wet’suwet’en supporters from continuing their blockade of the B.C. legislature in Victoria.
And in Toronto, a massive march snaked through downtown to the provincial legislature Monday, with Toronto police tweeting that drivers should consider alternate routes after protesters stopped for a time at the busy corner of Bay and College. “When justice fails, block the rails,” demonstrators chanted. “How do you spell racist? R-C-M-P,” they added.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the federal government was committed to “resolving the situation quickly and peacefully,” while maintaining that the rail disruptions must be settled through dialogue, not police intervention.
“We are not the kind of country where politicians get to tell the police what to do in operational matters,” he told media Friday, while attending a global security conference in Munich. “We are a country that recognizes the right to protest, but we are a country of the rule of law. And we will ensure that everything is done to resolve this through dialogue and constructive outcomes.”
Before his meeting at Tyendinaga began Saturday, Miller said he wasn’t sure he could convince anyone to shut down the blockade, but he was there to open a dialogue.
“This is a situation that is very tense, very volatile, there are some people that have been standing out there for days, so today is a chance to talk and have a real discussion,” he said. “All of Canada is hurting, the economy is slowing down,” and “everyone knows the reports about supply shortages, but we can’t move forward without dialogue, and that’s we’re going to do today.”
Afterwards, based on a recording provided by a meeting participant, CBC reported that Miller had asked the community to suspend the blockade. But that request was undercut by a call from Wet’suwet’en hereditary chief Woos (Frank Alec), who told the room the RCMP was still on his community’s territory. “I would suggest to you loud and clear that we want the RCMP out of Gidimt’en territory,” he said.
While the RCMP operation to clear several Indigenous checkpoints was over, the chief said the police were still on the scene and “continued to pose a threat”, CBC said.
“We want them out of there. We don’t want them there. They have a detachment right in the middle of nowhere, in their eyes. But in our eyes, it’s our territory,” he said. “We do our traditions out there. We do our trapping and hunting. They are out there with guns, threatening us.”
“Get the red coats out first, get the blue coats out…then we can maybe have some common discussions,” responded Tyendinaga community member Mario Baptiste.
“Obviously dealing with the context of the issue…it absolutely needs to be widened,” Miller replied.
“Tonight, we made some modest progress by opening up a dialogue with the people standing out there in the cold and doing so for eight or nine days,” Miller told media afterwards. “We talked openly, frankly, painfully at times, and sometimes with humour. There’s a lot more work to be done.”
Miller added that he would share the results of the discussion with Trudeau and the rest of the federal cabinet. “The underlying issues did not arise yesterday,” he said. “They’ve been present in this community for hundreds of years.”
Political scientists Gina Starblanket of the University of Calgary and Joyce Green of the University of Regina underscored that history last Thursday, in a Globe and Mail op ed that declared the death of the reconciliation process between Canada and Indigenous peoples.
“February has seen an explosion of Indigenous and non-Indigenous support for the current political struggle by the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs and their supporters,” they wrote. “Again, we are seeing a ham-handed response of both orders of government, delivered in justificatory talking points to the media and enforced by the RCMP. Once again, we have the police dragging Indigenous peoples off of their lands, in Canada, in the service of the settler state, which is as usual attending to virtually every relevant political interest—except Indigenous ones.”
All of that “despite the rhetoric from federal and some provincial politicians about the need to transform their relationship with Indigenous people—even though that little matter of land theft continues,” they add. “And Canada—in all its structural manifestations—continues its perpetual drive to eliminate Indigenous rights to land and self-determination, treating them as impediments to the national interest.”
News coverage over the last week combined front-line reports on the blockade with stories on the businesses and supply chains disrupted by the national rail shutdown. On Thursday, CBC reported that protests in Belleville and New Hazelton, B.C. had “prompted CN Rail to temporarily shut down parts of its network” as of Tuesday, with the lack of any train movement “crippling the ability to move goods and facilitate trade.” That same day, CN said it was “initiating a progressive and orderly shutdown of its Eastern Canadian network”, a decision that could lead to 6,000 temporary layoffs, according to Teamsters Canada.
“With over 400 trains cancelled during the last week and new protests that emerged at strategic locations on our mainline, we have decided that a progressive shutdown of our Eastern Canadian operations is the responsible approach to take for the safety of our employees and the protesters,” said CN President and CEO J.J. Ruest. “This situation is regrettable…these protests are unrelated to CN’s activities and beyond our control.”
On Wednesday, VIA Rail said it had cancelled 256 passenger trains along its Montreal-Toronto and Toronto-Ottawa routes, affecting 42,100 passengers. A day later, it shut down most operations. “Via Rail has no other option but to cancel all of its services on the network, with the exception of Sudbury-White River (CP Rail) and Churchill-The Pas (Hudson Bay Railway), until further notice,” the company said in a media statement.
The lack of rail access quickly cascaded across the economy, with business leaders raising alarms about the economic impact.
“Every day that it goes on, the damage compounds,” said Perrin Beatty, CEO of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce. “It is damaging our international reputation as a reliable supplier. It is affecting our supply chains around the world.”
Beatty told CBC the blockades had “severely limited the movement of perishable foods and other consumer items, grain, construction materials, and propane for Quebec and Atlantic Canada,” the national broadcaster said. “The stoppage has also affected the movement of natural resources like timber, aluminum, coal, and oil, while factories and mines may soon face difficult decisions about their ability to continue operations.”
“Every day we hear more and more from companies that either can’t get their parts or ingredients or components to market, or can’t get their products out. It’s beginning to pile up,” added Dennis Darby, president of Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters, whose members typically load about 4,500 rail cars a day. “In today’s modern industrial economy, there aren’t as many big warehouses of stuff as people tend to think. It’s kind of in, out, and sell.”
Derek Nighbor, president and CEO of the Forest Products Association of Canada, said the disruptions had cost his members “millions and millions of dollars” in lost sales, with mills unable to get raw materials or schedule freight cars to ship finished products. Wade Sobkowich, executive director of the Western Grain Elevator Association, traced a similar impact.
“If the blockade were to lift today, it would have cost the grain industry over $10 million just over the last few days,” he said. “We have farmers who are needing to deliver product. They’re needing to sell it into the handling system so that they can get paid, so that they can pay bills and keep cash flow going on their farms.”
Karl Littler, senior vice president, public affairs at the Retail Council of Canada, listed personal hygiene products, infant formula, cleaning and sanitary products, and fresh food as items that will be in short supply if the blockades continue. “There is an inability to move goods cross country through the various choke points,” he told CBC. “It’s of major concern to retail merchants. It both interrupts the flow of retail-ready goods and hampers the manufacturing process for Canadian manufacturing.”
“Obviously, there are some issues if nothing is being transported by rail,” said Nathalie St-Pierre, president and CEO of the Canadian Propane Association. “They are talking about continuing the dialogue. But at the same time, and from probably everyone’s perspective, you have to lift the blockades. You can have the dialogue, but at this time, I think the point was made.”
But for campaigners supporting the Wet’suwet’en, there is historic irony but no coincidence in a nation-wide protest that targets Canada’s railways.
“It’s very historically significant because the project of colonization, as well as the extinction of the buffalo, was facilitated by the laying down of the Trans Canada railway,” said Nikki Sanchez, a member of the Pipil Maya Nation who was involved with a six-day encampment at the B.C. legislature.
Climate Justice Edmonton organizer Emma Jackson tweeted that this might be the only time she celebrates cancelled trains, noting that the railway was first built to “enable settlers to go and build their lives on Indigenous lands”, making it a fair target for pushback against a pipeline being built without the consent of hereditary chiefs.
“It’s also probably the best tool that a lot of folks have at our disposal, in order to really put pressure on the decision-makers,” Jackson told the Toronto Star, adding that it’s “mind-boggling” that politicians are focusing on the inconvenience resulting from the blockades. “If you’re going to talk about inconvenience, it is very inconvenient that you’re going to be removed from your own land, forcefully at the barrel of a gun.”
Sanchez added that Indigenous communities don’t take the blockades lightly, and they wouldn’t be possible without the support of non-Indigenous Canadian allies. “We have no interest in impacting individuals’ livelihoods,” she said. “We want a Canada that is upheld to justice.”
The Star documents the support for the Wet’suwet’en from many of the passengers affected by the rail shutdown in Ontario.