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Here’s where investigators are focused for December derailment of Custer oil train

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Workers use heavy equipment to begin to move one of several train cars which had been hauling crude oil and derailed a week earlier, Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2020, in Custer, Wash. The cause of the derailment of the oil cars Dec. 22 in Whatcom County is still unknown. A spokesperson for BNSF Railways said three cars ruptured, spilling an unknown amount of crude oil onto the ground.
Workers use heavy equipment to begin to move one of several train cars which had been hauling crude oil and derailed a week earlier, Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2020, in Custer, Wash. The cause of the derailment of the oil cars Dec. 22 in Whatcom County is still unknown. A spokesperson for BNSF Railways said three cars ruptured, spilling an unknown amount of crude oil onto the ground. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson) Photo Gallery

BELLINGHAM — An investigation into the derailment and fire of a BNSF Railway oil train in Custer last month has focused away from foul play, an official with the National Transportation Safety Board said Tuesday.

“There has been no evidence found by our investigators at this time to indicate that this was an intentional act,” said NTSB spokesman Christopher O’Neil.

That means investigators will be looking at equipment failure, human error or another cause to explain why 10 oil tank cars loaded with highly flammable Bakken crude oil derailed at Portal Way and Main Street in the area north of Ferndale shortly before noon Dec. 22, 2020.

O’Neil, who is head of NTSB media relations, told The Bellingham Herald that the investigation was in the “very early stages’ and preliminary findings about the crash would be known in one to three months.

BNSF spokeswoman Courtney Wallace told The Herald that it’s too soon to comment.

“There are multiple investigations still underway at this time by other federal agencies,” Wallace said. “Given this, it would be premature to speculate on the underlying cause of the derailment until all investigations have concluded.”

In last month’s incident, three oil tank cars ruptured and ignited a fire that engulfed five cars, prompting an evacuation notice for residents in the immediate area and stopping traffic on Interstate 5 for part of the afternoon.

Firefighters from several Whatcom County fire departments fought the blaze, including specially trained crews from the nearby two oil refineries, Phillips 66 and BP Cherry Point.

Flames were under control within hours and the fire was allowed to burn itself out.

State Department of Ecology spokesman Ty Keltner said the oil didn’t contaminate nearby streams or kill wildlife and Ecology officials will continue to monitor groundwater.

Smoke from the fire didn’t affect local air quality, he added.

Concerns had arisen over an intentional derailment because the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office arrested two Bellingham women in late November on suspicion of placing a shunt on the tracks to derail a train.

FBI agents were at the scene of the incident, along with officials from several local, state and federal agencies.

The FBI Terrorism Task Force has been investigating more than three dozen similar attacks against the railroad in Whatcom and Skagit counties over the past year.

“We do not have any new updates, and at this point, it would be speculative to connect other events with this incident,” the FBI told The Herald in an email Monday.

O’Neil said in an interview Tuesday, Jan. 5, that investigators are looking closely at the DOT-117 tank cars involved in the incident.

“We look at every accident we investigate individually before we try to connect the dots,” O’Neil said.

Peter Knudson, another NTSB spokesman, said the NTSB is handling the investigation for now.

“We investigate accidents. If it was determined to be an intentional act, we would turn it over to the FBI,” Knudson told The Herald on Monday, Jan. 4.

Knudson said it isn’t unusual for the FBI to respond to the scene of such an incident.

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