CUSTER, Wash. — A Burlington Northern Santa Fe train carrying crude oil from North Dakota's Bakken oil fields derailed and caught fire late Tuesday morning, Dec. 22, in a small town in the far northwest part of the state.
BNSF Railway spokesperson Courtney Wallace said in a statement that three of the 10 cars that derailed started on fire in Custer, a town of 370 residents just 25 miles south of the Canadian border, about 11:40 a.m.
The train, which originated in North Dakota, was near Interstate 5 about 100 miles north of Seattle, and the Whatcom County Sheriff's Department said they had to evacuate a three-quarter mile radius around the derailment.
The train was headed for the nearby town of Ferndale, Wallace said, which is near the Puget Sound.
Late in the afternoon, the sheriff's office said in a Facebook post that the fire was under control. However, they said an evacuation order and local road closures were still in place.
The sheriff urged town residents to continue to avoid the area, although the interstate was reopened about two hours after the fire started.
A photo posted by the sheriff's department showed a huge cloud of black smoke rising into the air and residential homes nearby.
Wallace said no injuries were reported to crew members onboard the train.
She said the cause of the derailment is under investigation, with BNSF coordinating with authorities.
The sheriff's department told the nearby Bellingham (Wash.) Herald that they were unsure if there was any damage to nearby structures or buildings. The number of people evacuated also wasn't available.
The department and Wallace said the train was carrying the crude oil from North Dakota.
"Our thoughts are with those who have been affected by this incident," Wallace said. She said BNSF established a claims hotline for those who have been temporarily evacuated.
The derailment and fire follows a decision last May in which the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration sided with North Dakota and Montana against a Washington state law requiring oil unloaded from trains have a vapor pressure under 9 pounds per square inch. The limit would fall below North Dakota's cap of 13.7 pounds per square inch, which the state argued was an industry standard.
North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said in a statement that he was “pleased” with the PHMSA decision, according to an article by the Bismarck Tribune.
“An independent study of Bakken crude oil determined that vapor pressure is not a statistically significant factor in improving rail transportation safety,” Stenehjem said. “The study’s results did not support a need for creating a distinction for crude oils based on vapor pressure.”
The study he referenced was completed by Sandia National Laboratories last summer, said the Tribune report. It concluded that “vapor pressure is not a statistically significant factor” in determining the fiery characteristics of oil train crashes.