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Train derails near Anacortes, spills up to 3,100 gallons of diesel

A train derailed on the Swinomish Reservation, near Anacortes, Washington, just after midnight Thursday morning, spilling diesel fuel between the shore of Padilla Bay and an RV park next to the Swinomish Casino and Lodge.

Washington Department of Ecology officials initially estimated that 5,000 gallons of diesel had spilled, then revised that estimate to "up to 5,000 gallons" later Thursday morning. Thursday afternoon, they revised their estimate to "up to 3,100 gallons" and said estimates would be refined as cleanup progresses.

The freight train was operated by BNSF Railway and seven cars long: two locomotives up front, a buffer car to protect the train's two crew members from any hazardous cargo, and four tanker cars, which state officials say were empty.

No injuries—to humans or wildlife—have been reported.

The Washington Department of Ecology initially reported that "most" of the spilled fuel went onto the land side of the waterfront track.

Later Thursday morning, Ecology spokesperson Scarlet Tang said the trains' two locomotives had both tipped over onto the upland side of the tracks. The empty tank cars remained upright and did not spill.

"Luckily, they tipped over onto the land side of the railroad track berm rather than the shore side," Tang said. "If it had tipped over onto the other side, it would've spilled into onto the shore, where there are some really valuable eelgrass beds."

caption: The location of a train derailment and diesel spill on the Swinomish Reservation, March, 16, 2023.
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The location of a train derailment and diesel spill on the Swinomish Reservation, March, 16, 2023.
Washington State Department of Ecology

"The train was traveling east. Before reaching the bridge that crosses the Swinomish Channel, both engines and at least one other car left the tracks," according to a Swinomish Tribe press release Thursday morning.

This train was a short stub compared to the mile-long oil trains that frequently rumble along the shores of Puget Sound, with two engine cars pulling at the front and two pushing at the rear. Such a BNSF Railway train derailed and caught fire near Custer, Washington, in 2020, spilling about 7,000 gallons of oil and sending another 22,000 gallons up in smoke.

"BNSF Railway can confirm that two locomotives derailed near Anacortes, Wash. on March 16, at approximately midnight local time," BNSF Railway spokesperson Lena Kent said in an email.

Kent disputed Ecology's estimate of the size of the spill, saying "5,000 [gallons] may have been originally reported, however, it appears to be a minimal amount," she said.

Kent said BNSF has personnel working with local authorities at the scene and the cause of the incident is under investigation.

With both locomotives tipping to the upland side of the railroad berm, Ecology officials say there is no concern for diesel reaching salt water. The Ecology department is not collecting samples of ground water but is deploying air-monitoring equipment.

Diesel is toxic to aquatic life. It evaporates quickly and can cause irritation and lung damage to humans and other terrestrial life if inhaled.

By Thursday afternoon, cleanup crews had vacuumed up about 600 gallons of diesel fuel that had pooled on the ground. Tang said up to 2,500 gallons had soaked into the ground before a vacuum truck could suck it up.

Once the overturned locomotives are removed, cleanup crews plan to dig up the diesel-contaminated soil and haul it to a hazardous-waste landfill.

Emergency responders at the scene included the Swinomish Police Department, BNSF, Fire District 13, Marathon and HollyFrontier refinery crews, and other state and local agencies.

Skagit County Sheriff's Office and FBI officials both said Thursday their agencies were not involved in the investigation—a contrast to the 2020 train crash and fire one county to the north. Then, heavily armed federal agents descended upon the fiery scene in Whatcom County, and the FBI led the investigation into what caused an oil train to tear apart and crash into itself.

Eventually, the Federal Railroad Administration concluded that it was a "possible" sabotage, while rail union officials concluded sabotage was the only possible explanation. What conclusions the FBI reached remain unknown.

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Disclosure: BNSF Railway was a financial supporter of KUOW in 2021. A previous version of this disclosure incorrectly stated that BNSF is currently a financial supporter.

This story has been updated.

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