Cleanup 'wrapping up' at BNSF derailment on Swinomish Reservation

7-car train derailed early Thursday morning
March 20, 2023 at 3:36 p.m.
Crews examine an overturned locomotive around noon March 16. A Burlington Northern Santa Fe train derailed shortly after midnight on the Swinomish Reservation in Anacortes.
Crews examine an overturned locomotive around noon March 16. A Burlington Northern Santa Fe train derailed shortly after midnight on the Swinomish Reservation in Anacortes. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)

Staff Reporter

Cleanup at the Burlington Northern Santa Fe train derailment on the Swinomish Reservation is almost complete, according to the “Unified Command” response team. 

The Unified Command, composed of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Washington state Department of Ecology, BNSF, Skagit County Department of Emergency Management and the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, is responsible for managing the cleanup of the land, as well as monitoring groundwater for missed diesel in the coming months.

The seven-car freight train derailed on the Swinomish Reservation near Anacortes shortly after midnight Thursday, March 16, spilling thousands of gallons of diesel onto the ground. Though initial estimates said close to 5,000 gallons of diesel spilled, responders updated the total to just 3,100 gallons late Thursday. 

Swinomish Chairman Steve Edwards, in a statement last week, praised the swift cooperation of numerous responding agencies.

“We have a long way to go, but we know that things could have been much, much worse,” he wrote. “We at Swinomish will continue to do everything we can to protect the waters and natural resources around us, while ensuring public safety.”

Cleanup crews removed approximately 2,100 cubic yards of contaminated soil and about 4,300 gallons of groundwater from the site. The groundwater contained “fewer than 50 gallons of diesel fuel,” according to a unified command update on Saturday afternoon. 

The Unified Command has not identified the cause of the derailment, pending completion of state and federal investigations. The train was coming from one of Anacortes’ two oil refineries, but involved agencies were unable to say which one. 

The train may have been forced off the tracks by a derailer before it entered tracks over the Swinomish Channel, according to reporting from KUOW News. A derailer, a safety device often found on railroad bridges, forces a train’s wheels to jump the tracks and quickly stop. 

The derailer device “did what it was supposed to and spilled the train off the tracks so it wouldn't continue on into the Swinomish Slough, into the water, which wouldn't have been good at all,” Tom Wooten, chair of the Samish Indian Nation in Anacortes, told KUOW. “The fuel that was spilled didn't make it to the water, right, to the Salish Sea. So we're thankful about that.”

Unified Command members have not commented on that report.

In addition to removing potentially contaminated water and earth, cleanup crews have installed groundwater monitors to ensure “there isn’t any residual fuel that got missed in the cleanup or anything like that,” said Ty Keltner, a spokesperson for Ecology. 

“They’ve already backfilled the hole,” Keltner added. “And they’re lying down the tracks again, and then the train should be running there after they test things.” 

Trains have been crossing through the Swinomish Reservation since 1889, when the railroad was initially constructed against the tribe’s wishes.

The tribe has sued BNSF many times, with the latest lawsuit, filed in early 2015, still ongoing. Current restrictions limit the number of train cars that can cross through the reservation each day: one eastern-bound train, and one western-bound train of 25 cars or less per day, according to the lawsuit. In the suit, heard in court on Monday, March 20, the tribe claims BNSF intentionally trespassed on the reservation with trains four times the permitted size. 

Keltner said train derailments happen frequently, though the Skagit County Department of Emergency Management said it’s rare to see one that requires an incident command in the area. 

Since 1999, BNSF trains have been involved in 21 equipment-related accidents and another 27 highway crossing accidents in Skagit County, according to data from the Federal Railroad Administration

The Swinomish Tribe declined to comment on the derailment this week. 

BNSF spokesperson Lena Kent did not respond to requests for comment about the derailment. 

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