Shortly after midnight on March 16, a train derailed near the Swinomish Casino along the Padilla Bay waterfront. In total, there were seven cars in the train, including two locomotives, one buffer car, and four tank cars. The two locomotives derailed, one of which spilled fuel to a berm on the land-side of the tracks. The buffer car was partially derailed. Train derailments have become a common occurrence recently, with one in East Palestine, Ohio being covered nationwide earlier this year. In response to this derailment, a unified command has been created consisting of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Washington Dept. of Ecology, BNSF Railway, Skagit County Department of Emergency Management, and Swinomish Indian Tribal Community.
During a hearing yesterday to examine improving rail safety in the wake of the East Palestine, Ohio, train derailment, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell, Chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, questioned Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw about the rail industry’s commitment to safety. “We can’t have railroads adopt operating models focused on just cutting costs to achieve higher profits and then have higher accident rates,” Senator Cantwell said in her opening statement. “From 2017 to 2021, railroads cut their workforce by 22% and reduced investment in the network by 25% and at the same time, accident rates increased by 14%.”
Shortly after the derailment in Swinomish, responders arrived on the scene and found diesel fuel on the ground and ongoing discharge from one of the locomotives. As a precautionary measure, cleanup contractors deployed booms to contain any spilled diesel from reaching the water and placed additional booms immediately off-shore. Thankfully, no petroleum sheen has been observed in the water. During the hearing, Cantwell also touched on the Swinomish derailment stating, “Less than a week ago, a Burlington Northern Santa Fe train derailed in my home state of Washington, on the Swinomish Reservation in Skagit County, spilling 3,100 gallons of diesel near the Padilla Bay waterfront, a sensitive aquatic ecosystem. These are important issues for all of America.”
According to the command coalition, initial estimates were that up to 5,000 gallons of diesel spilled from the locomotive. However, current estimates based on fuel recovery efforts is that a maximum potential of up to 3,100 gallons was spilled. Approximately 600 gallons were recovered from the ground. The remaining fuel and contaminated soil will be removed and taken to a permitted facility. Some fuel remains in the locomotive and will be measured after it is moved to a safe position. Numbers will continue to be refined as the response progresses. Fuel was removed from the second locomotive that was not leaking. The four tank cars were removed from the scene and a lifting unit is on scene to lift and remove the locomotives. It is not known at the time how extensive the damage of this derailment will be towards the local wildlife. While removing contaminated soil, oil sheen was discovered in the ground water, raising the potential for contaminated water on Tribal territory. The Washington Department of Ecology will continue to survey the area and test for any potential changes that may occur.
Multiple drone flights and helicopter overflights by the U.S. Coast Guard have confirmed no impact to water or wildlife. There have been no injuries. Initial investigative reports, indicate there was miscommunication between the locomotives and a switch operator. There will be a full investigation once the cleanup is complete.
There is also ongoing investigations into if BNSF breached their committment to the Swinomish Tribe by traversing too many trains across their lands.