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Train carrying crude oil derails, forces evacuations in Whatcom County

UPDATE, 6:26 pm: Adds comments from Whatcom County Sheriff and from a Washington Department of Ecology spokesperson.

BNSF Railway says seven train cars carrying crude oil derailed in the Custer area of Whatcom County just before noon on Tuesday. Two rail cars caught on fire, sending giant black plumes of smoke in the air, but authorities said no one was injured.

By mid-afternoon Tuesday, the Whatcom County Sheriff's Department tweeted that the fire was under control. 

The incident happened close to a residential area, as well as an elementary school, and people in a half-mile radius were told to immediately evacuate. There were no children at the school because of winter break, but the Ferndale School District superintendent said two custodians got out safely.

The cause of the derailment is under investigation, said Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo. 

"The FBI is on the scene. We have the state Utilities and Transportation Commission there as well," Elfo said. "We have the right people to determine what happened and why."

Julia Talamantes lives a half block from the railyard and was home with her 5-year-old son when she felt her house shake "longer than normal." She said she's accustomed to feeling a rumble from the nearby train cars. She found out quickly from social media that a train had derailed.

She says she felt calm until first responders came to tell her and her son to evacuate, and that’s when she started to feel some panic.

“We all know the sensationalism of action movies and how cars explode to bits and giant smokestacks and stuff like that – that kind of crossed my mind that – oh, are they expecting a big boom out of this?” Talamantes said.

The fire from two train cars sent giant black plumes of smoke in the air in Whatcom County on Dec. 22, 2020.
Credit Julia Talamantes
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Special to KNKX
The fire from two train cars sent giant black plumes of smoke in the air.

She scrambled to get her dog and son out of the house and even attempted to get her neighbor's cats, but they refused to come. Talamantes and her son headed to a friend's house beyond the evacuation area. 

Meanwhile, a little further east, her mother-in-law, Bianca Maddux, was just outside the evacuation area. She said her husband had been scraping snow off their porch when he heard a loud boom followed by sirens.

“I was looking out to the west, and you could see the big plumes of black smoke coming up," Maddux said. "And then I believe a second car must have caught on fire, too, because there ended up being two big plumes of smoke coming up.”

Interstate 5 was closed between Grandview Road and Birch Bay Lynden Road for a while Tuesday afternoon, but the State Patrol reported around 2:30 p.m. that the highway was open.

Along with investigating the cause of the derailment, officials are working to understand and mitigate the environmental impact. The state Department of Ecology said that it's working with EPA's Pacific Northwest office and BNSF to manage the site.

Ty Keltner is a spokesperson for the Department of Ecology's spills program. He said the oil does not appear to have reached any bodies of water, but his office is also examining other impacts.

"Of course, any time you have a fire, you’re concerned about runoff as well," he said. "So our responders have taken a lot of effort to make sure any runoff from firefighting efforts has been contained with a boom and other things that will capture all that so it doesn’t spill off into anywhere else."

 

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.