Cause of oil train derailment, fire remains under investigation

Clean-up efforts continued Wednesday in the North Sound where an oil train derailed then caught fire near the small town of Custer.

Artist Jenny Reich operates Whimsy Art Glass Studio and has for nearly a decade. Her shop is near the rail line that runs through the town. She says she recalls hearing a loud noise Tuesday but did not know the potential severity of the incident until she stepped outside and saw a black column of smoke.

"It could have been so much worse," she said. "Nobody was killed and we have to be eternally grateful for that."

Officials announced Wednesday morning the fires had all been extinguished the night before. Federal and state investigators searched for a potential cause to the incident. Flames erupted again from the cleanup scene late Wednesday around 10 p.m., but fire crews responded quickly and extinguished the flames. 

The damaged rail cars were drained of remaining oil, a similar effort would occur for those not affected, said officials.

Clean up of the spill would happen in two phases, said David Byers from the state Department of Ecology. The first phase includes oil removal from streams and wetlands, which could be completed within the next two days. The second phase include a barrage of tests to determine if contamination heavily impact soil and groundwater. That process could take months.

The rail cars used to transport the oil were a newer model. A BNSF spokesperson said the oil cars met DOT-117R specifications, which are strengthened versions of previous iterations.

"Those improved rail cars likely minimized the release of oil," said Byers.

Exactly how much oil had spilled has yet to be determined, as is any causing factors in Tuesday’s derailment, said officials.

Reich said her business has struggled with pandemic restrictions for the past month.
A derailment only days from Christmas was tough for an already struggling business.

"We just keep keeping on," she said.

The track was expected to reopen to train service early Thursday morning.