Custer derailment leaked nearly 30,000 gallons of crude oil


Investigators have determined that nearly 30,000 gallons of oil leaked from train cars during the December 22 Custer derailment.

Authorities have yet to publicly announce what caused the 108-car train to derail in Custer, toppling ten cars from the tracks that forced evacuations.

Washington State Department of Ecology (DOE) reported on its website that 28,962 gallons of oil either burned, evaporated or were recovered. Workers were unable to recover 5,400 to 8,000 gallons of the highly flammable Bakken crude oil.

To remediate the remaining contamination, crews have installed a bioventing system that pipes oxygen into the ground and over time breaks down petroleum hydrocarbons.

DOE spokesperson Ty Keltner said this is not guaranteed to clean up all of the contamination, but is a method that BNSF has used to effectively clean up other oil spills in the past.

Dave Byers, DOE response section manager, said the cleanup process will take years until fully complete. “It won’t be a timeframe of a few weeks or months,” he said.

DOE workers will construct groundwater monitoring wells at the site next month to detect off-site oil migration. Testing of nearby wells has shown no evidence of contamination, the DOE reported.

BNSF Railway engineers can better estimate how long the cleanup will take once they know more about the organic content of the soil, particle size and porosity of soil, Byers said.

Crews completed excavating contaminated soil and adding new soil on January 6, DOE reported. Air monitoring also stopped that week after finding no air quality concerns.

Byers said it’s difficult to compare this accident to other derailments because all accidents are slightly different. The Custer derailment stood out from other incidents in that the resulting fire burned off oil, the contamination is not suspected to have escaped the derailment site and there is no evidence of harmed wildlife.

Byers’ last crude oil derailment experience was the 2016 derailment in Mosier, Oregon. Although not in the state, Washington DOE responded to the scene where 16 of the 96 cars derailed about 600 feet from the Columbia River, releasing about 47,000 gallons of oil.

Trains, pipelines and vessels transport over 20 billion gallons of oil through Washington per year, according to DOE data. Since 2005, the state has had a goal of zero spills and U.S. Coast Guard data shows Washington maintains one of the lowest spill rates in the U.S.

“Fortunately, our experience with crude oil derailments and fires isn’t too deep,” Byers said.

Crude oil shipments have continually increased since 2012, when it first started being transported by rail in Washington, according to DOE’s latest quarterly report on crude oil shipments by rail and pipeline.


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