Train cars carrying crude oil derail, burn north of Seattle
BELLINGHAM, Washington (AP) - Seven rail cars carrying crude oil were derailed Tuesday and five caught fire, sending a large cloud of black smoke into the sky north of Seattle near the Canadian border.
The derailment in downtown Custer shut down nearby roads and spurred evacuation orders during a major fire reaction, Whatcom County officials said on Twitter. Interstate 5 was temporarily closed in both directions.
Later on Tuesday, the Whatcom County Sheriff's Office announced that the fires were under control and the evacuation order had been lifted, but the roadblocks remained in place. The fires on the site remained active, the sheriff's office added, and residents were asked to stay on their return home.
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"Everyone is in danger in a scene like this, but luckily there were no injuries," Sheriff Bill Elfo said at a press conference.
Preparing to open her business, Jenny Reich, who owns Whimsy Art Glass, told the Seattle Times that although she is used to exercising noise, "suddenly there was a really big noise and everything was shaking."
Black smoke blocked her view, rescue workers came, and Reich said she was advised to evacuate her business. She grabbed her wallet, keys and dog and left.
Washington state is home to five oil refineries and sees millions of gallons of crude oil by rail across the state every week coming from North Dakota and Alberta, Canada, according to the State Department of Ecology.
The seven cars were derailed at around 11:46 a.m. on Tuesday, BNSF railroad spokesman Courtney Wallace said at the press conference. She said two people were aboard the 108-car train that went from North Dakota to the Ferndale refinery, owned by Phillips 66.
"The BNSF is working with local authorities to assess and defuse the situation," the railroad said on Twitter. "The cause of the incident is being investigated."
The State Department of Ecology announced that a command center with representatives from the railway and environmental protection agency had been set up on site.
Matt Krogh, director of U.S. oil and gas campaigns for 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 - was "very, very dangerous".
He cited the fiery derailment of a train carrying crude oil in Lac Megantic, Quebec, which killed 47 people, and a 2016 derailment in Mosier, Oregon, along the Columbia River, that evacuated people.
Krogh said crude oil is volatile and there are frequent track maintenance concerns. Among other things, Krogh and his group would like a reduction in the number of tank wagons permitted per shipment.
"I think we were lucky today," he said, referring to the derailment in Custer.
US Democratic Representative Rick Larsen, D-Wash., Said in a statement Tuesday that 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 strict rules to make the transportation of oil by rail safer," said Larsen. "Of course there may be more to be done."
Custer, a small town of several hundred people, is 100 miles north of Seattle.
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