BELLINGHAM, Wash. (AP) – Seven cars carrying crude oil derailed Tuesday and five caught fire, sending a large plume of black smoke into the sky north of Seattle, near the Canadian border, authorities said.
The derailment in the downtown Custer neighborhood closed nearby streets and prompted evacuation orders during a major fire response, Whatcom County officials said on Twitter. Interstate 5 has been temporarily closed in the area in both directions.
Later Tuesday, the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office tweeted that the fires were under control and the evacuation order had been lifted but roadblocks would remain in place. The fires at the site remained active, the sheriff’s office added, and residents were urged to stay indoors after returning home.
“Everyone is in danger in a scene like this, but luckily there were no injuries,” Sheriff Bill Elfo said at a press conference.
Jenny Reich, owner of Whimsy Art Glass, was preparing to open her shop and told the Seattle Times that even though she was used to train noises, “suddenly it was a really loud noise, and everything was shaking. . “
Black smoke obscured his view, emergency personnel arrived and Reich said he had been advised to evacuate his business. She grabbed her wallet, her keys and her dog and left.
Home to five oil refineries, Washington state sees millions of gallons of crude oil move by rail across the state every week, from North Dakota and Alberta, Canada, according to the state department of ecology.
The seven cars derailed at around 11:46 a.m. Tuesday, BNSF Railway spokeswoman Courtney Wallace said at the press conference. She said two people were on board the 108-car train from North Dakota to the Ferndale refinery, owned by Phillips 66.
“The BNSF is working with local authorities to assess and mitigate the situation,” the railway said on Twitter. “The cause of the incident is under investigation.”
The State Department of Ecology said a command center had been set up at the scene with officials from the railways and the Federal Environmental Protection Agency.
Matt Krogh, director of US Oil & Gas campaigns for environmental group Stand.earth, is based in Bellingham near the derailment and told The Associated Press he can see the smoke. He said the incident was another example of how transporting crude oil by train – especially in a large number of tankers – is “very, very dangerous.”
He cited the violent derailment in 2013 of a train carrying crude in Lac Mégantic, Quebec, which killed 47 people, and a 2016 derailment in Mosier, Oregon, along the Columbia River, which caused evacuation of people.
Krogh said crude oil is volatile and there are often track maintenance issues. Among other things, Krogh and his group would like to see a reduction in the number of tank cars allowed per shipment.
“I think we were lucky today,” he said, referring to the Custer derailment.
U.S. Democratic Representative Rick Larsen, D-Wash., Said in a statement Tuesday that he was concerned about the derailment. Larsen is a senior member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
“I have worked closely with the Obama administration to create tough rules to make it safer to transport oil by rail,” Larsen said. “Obviously there may be more work to be done.”
Custer, a small town of several hundred people, is about 100 miles north of Seattle.