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News / Northwest

BNSF train derails on Swinomish Reservation as tribe readies court case against railway company

By Isabella Breda, The Seattle Times
Published: March 17, 2023, 7:43am

SWINOMISH RESERVATION — Cleanup crews affiliated with railway company BNSF worked Thursday to remove contaminated soil after a freight train derailed here overnight.

It was initially unclear how much diesel fuel leaked from the two locomotives that toppled. But an update Thursday night from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, state Ecology Department and BNSF said up to 3,100 gallons of diesel spilled.

Excavators loaded tainted soil into steel containers and cranes were on the scene to right the heavy locomotives under the supervision of the EPA and state Department of Ecology.

None of the train’s other cars tipped off the tracks, which typically carry crude oil to two oil refineries on Fidalgo Island and near Anacortes. The train was traveling east when it derailed, next to an RV park and about 400 feet from the Swinomish Casino and Lodge.

No injuries were reported from the train’s crew, an engineer and a conductor. The Coast Guard circled nearby waterways with a drone and later a helicopter, searching for a sheen on the water that would indicate oil. But no harmful effects to water or wildlife were found as of Thursday afternoon, according to the EPA and BNSF.

Train derailments like this one are under heightened scrutiny across the country after a Norfolk Southern train derailed last month in East Palestine, Ohio, spilling millions of gallons of toxic chemicals into the soil and water and unleashing a billowing cloud of black smoke.

On Swinomish land, where the tracks cross sensitive marine ecosystems and near the tribe’s financial assets, the BNSF derailment is an example of why the tribe is taking the railway company to court over the amount of crude oil carried through the reservation.

In fact on Monday, a trial is set to begin over the tribe’s 2015 lawsuit alleging that BNSF trespassed when it ran thousands of trains filled with highly combustible crude oil over the reservation without the tribe’s consent. The tribe says BNSF was knowingly violating an easement agreement the two parties made in 1991 that the tribe says limited the length of trains allowed to pass through.

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BNSF did not respond to a request for an interview Thursday about the lawsuit or derailment.

Herb Krohn, a railroad conductor and the legislative director for SMART-Transportation Division, which represents railway workers, said the derailment demonstrates a need for more stringent railroad safety laws and regulations.

In wake of the derailment, Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said in a written statement there is more work to be done to “keep our nation’s rail system, communities, rail workers, and environment safe.”

A bill that would have limited the size of trains moving through Washington state died in the Legislature this year.

The BNSF train was headed toward Burlington after leaving an oil refinery when both locomotives came off the tracks a few minutes after midnight, said Ecology spokesperson Scarlet Tang, adding that it was believed the train’s oil cars were empty.

Alison Meyers, an Ecology response unit supervisor, said the second locomotive was spilling diesel fuel and lube oil Thursday morning.

The spill happened on a berm near the Swinomish Channel. Most of the diesel leaked on land, Ecology said. Swinomish Channel is 11 miles long and feeds into Padilla Bay to the north and Skagit Bay to the south. It’s partly dredged, historically connecting some shallow tidal sloughs and mud flats that are rearing habitat for juvenile Chinook and other salmonid species.

“The train did not derail in the direction that would have put pollutants into water, so we’re very fortunate that most of what was spilled ended up on land,” Ecology spokesperson Emily Tasaka said.

A BNSF spokesperson said the cause of the derailment was under investigation. The company estimates the span of railroad will reopen by noon Friday.

If a catastrophic spill were to happen elsewhere, people could likely uproot their lives and move to a new town, but “that’s not an option for tribal people,” said Tom Wooten, chair of the nearby Samish Indian Nation.

In their 2015 complaint, the Swinomish tribe said BNSF was reportedly running six 100-car trains per week over the right-of-way, four times the permitted number of cars under the easement agreement.

In a trial brief filed this week, the tribe alleged BNSF could not in good faith hold up both its obligations outlined in the easement agreement and its contract to transport oil.

The Department of Ecology receives more than 4,000 spill reports each year. Washington’s last oil spill caused by a train was a BNSF derailment in Custer in December 2020, during which an estimated 28,962 gallons of oil were spilled.

There were at least 1,164 train derailments across the country last year, according to federal data reported by NPR.

The Swinomish Indian Tribal Community is a federally recognized Indian tribe with more than 1,000 members. The Swinomish reservation is 65 miles north of Seattle on Fidalgo Island in Skagit County.

Wooten, the Samish chair, said the derailment was a reminder of the need for a safe method of transportation for fuel and other potentially toxic materials.

“This is a reality of the business they’re in,” he said. “They have to move it by pipe, or by tanker or barge.”