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Oil train derails in Interbay

Oil tanker cars derailed on tracks in Seattle's Interbay area. Credit: Bill Lucia

Three railroad tank cars carrying petroleum crude oil derailed under the Magnolia Bridge in Interbay early Thursday morning. 

No oil escaped and the cause of the accident is still under investigation, according to Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad spokesperson Gus Melonas. The train included 100 tank cars, two covered hoppers full of sand and three locomotives. All of the tank cars were carrying crude oil from North Dakota, which was bound for a refinery in Anacortes, Washington, Courtney Wallace, another BNSF spokesperson said.

When it ran off the tracks around 2 a.m., the train was traveling about five miles per hour, according to a BNSF statement, which also said the derailment did not pose any public safety risks.

The Seattle Fire Department first learned about the incident at 6:54 a.m. after it was reported in a 911 call from a business, according to department spokesperson Kyle Moore. BNSF's Melonas said that response teams from the railroad were on the scene about five minutes after the derailment.

"BNSF's team responds first," Melonas said. "We determined that we did not need assistance from outside agencies."

The fire department's Moore said that after receiving the 911 call, 19 firefighters, including a hazardous materials team, were sent to the site. They determined that the cars had not spilled any oil and were not leaking.

Two of the tank cars were leaning off of the tracks after the accident. A third remained upright. The second of the two locomotives at the front of the train also ran off the rails, as did the hopper directly behind it. Hoppers full of sand are commonly used as "buffer cars" in trains carrying crude oil.

"We're in the process of re-railing the cars now," Melonas said. Asked if it was unusual for a train to derail at such a slow speed, Melonas said: "It can happen."

Around 11 a.m. crews were getting equipment into place along the tracks that would be used to move the railcars.

All three of the derailed tank cars were CP-1232 models. Unlike an older type of DOT-111 tank cars, the newer CP-1232 includes additional safety features, including reinforced walls.

Melonas said around 9 a.m. that BNSF expected to have the cars cleared from the track in 5-8 hours. Rail traffic continued to travel along parrallel tracks late this morning. At one point a trainload of coal passed by the accident scene.

Crews were working to clear four derailed train cars from a track under Magnolia Bridge, around 11 a.m. on Thursday. Photo: Bill Lucia

Two of the tank cars will be taken to a facility at Interbay; the third will be taken to another site. BNSF's Wallace could not say what would happen to the crude oil in the cars. Each has a capacity of about 29,400 gallons.

The site of the accident was about 200 feet from Smith Cove, an inlet in the northern part of Elliott Bay. The Washington State Department of Ecology recommended that BNSF deploy floating barriers, called containment booms, in the water near Pier 91 as a precautionary measure after the derailment, a spokesperson for the department, Lisa Copeland said.

BNSF notified Ecology about the incident at 3:11 a.m., according to a statement from the department.

The fire department's Moore said that if any oil had leaked from the cars, firefighters would have tried to stop it from reaching the bay. The department's marine unit also has containment booms on hand, he said. 

Barb Graff, the city's director of emergency management, said that she first heard about the derailment on a news broadcast around six a.m. Because none of the tank cars were breached, her office elected to stay in contact with the railroad and the fire department, but did not activate the city's emergency operations center.

Had there been a spill or a fire, Graff said that the fire department would have assumed command of the incident, Seattle Department of Transportation would have closed the bridge, the police department would have set up a perimeter around the scene, and the city would have activated the emergency operations center.

"We would have figured out if people needed to be evacuated or shelter in place," she added.

Increased oil production in North Dakota has led to a recent rise in shipments of crude oil by rail. In 2010, 29,605 tank cars of crude oil originated in the U.S., according to the American Association of Railroads, a trade organization. That number climbed to an estimated 400,000 tank cars in 2013.

During that time there have been a number of accidents. A runaway train transporting crude oil crashed and exploded in the small Quebec town of Lac Megantic last July, killing 47 people and, according to Transport Canada, causing $200 million of property damage. On Dec. 30, 2013, a BNSF train carrying petroleum crude near Casselton, N.D. derailed and caught fire, with some of the tank cars exploding.

Based on studies conducted earlier this year, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, which is part of the federal Department of Transportation, has concluded that oil from the Bakken fields may be more volatile than traditional heavy crude oil.

On Wednesday, DOT released a set of draft rules for the transport of crude oil and other flammable materials by rail. The proposed rules include new tank car standards, speed restrictions and route analysis requirements.

Between eight and 13 BNSF-operated trains carrying petroleum crude oil pass through King County each week, according to information the railroad released in June to the Washington Military Department.  

The Seattle City Council sent a letter earlier this week to the U.S. Department of Transportation asking for a ban on shipments of highly flammable oil in older DOT-111 tank cars.

In March, the council passed a resolution requesting that the fire department and the office of emergency management review response plans to ensure that they were well suited for a rail accident involving crude oil.

The city is continuing to revise those plans Graff said, partly because of shifting rules and regulations at the federal level.

Councilmember Mike O'Brien, who has been vocal about the need for tighter restrictions on rail shipments of crude oil passing through the city, visited the derailment site on Thursday morning. "It just struck me how exposed we are to a potential tragedy," he said.

O'Brien said he has been working with the fire department and the office of emergency management to figure out what types of manpower, training and equipment the city would need in the event of an oil train spill or fire. Once those needs are identified, he wants to look at ways to pass along some of the associated costs to railroads. He would also like to see increased transparency from the rail industry.

"It shouldn't be up to the railroad to decide what risks are acceptable," he said. "It should be up to the city."

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