NTSB releases report on Custer train derailment

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A report issued on June 10 by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) examines how the tank cars were operated during last December’s train derailment. The report does not determine probable cause of the derailment, and the FBI and Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) are left to conclude their investigations.

The report comes after Seattle’s National Public Radio station affiliate KUOW published a June 7 article with documents obtained from union officials representing BNSF’s rail crews that alleged the incident was sabotage.

A 106-car train en route to Ferndale derailed around 11:40 a.m. December 22, 2020, forcing evacuations within a half-mile radius of the 7500 block of Portal Way. Ten tank cars carrying highly flammable crude oil derailed, with three of the cars releasing 29,000 gallons of petroleum, according to the NTSB report. However, the Washington State Department of Ecology reported in January that most of the oil was recovered, except for 5,400 to 8,000 gallons.

Fires burned uncontrolled for two hours as 120 people evacuated surrounding homes and businesses.

Although there were no injuries, the NTSB report says BNSF estimated damages to surpass $1.5 million.

A Bonneville Power Administration Custer substation security camera showed the train move forward, split in two, according to the report. The report outlines that the train became separated between cars 64 and 65, and the separated rear caught up with the front while traveling 21 mph. The front segment was traveling 7 mph when the crew used the emergency brake, meaning the speed difference between the front-end and back-end was 14 mph.

According to the report, NTSB did not send investigators to look at the site because of Covid-19 travel restrictions. Instead, the agency used FRA and Washington State Utilities and Transportation Commission data.

State senator Doug Ericksen (R-Ferndale) called for legislative hearings on the Custer derailment on June 9.

“That this derailment might have been the result of deliberate sabotage ought to horrify every one of us, even those who oppose the use of fossil fuels,” Ericksen said in a statement. “It is precisely the sort of case I warned about in 2016, when I introduced legislation providing special penalties for unlawful protests that aim to disrupt and destroy. As we watch footage of the fireball at Custer, I think everyone has to agree, if this was a protest, it certainly was not a peaceful one.”

In a statement, Ericksen said he would like to see legislation enacted that imposes longer sentences for protests aimed at causing economic disruption and prosecuting people who fund and promote the protests.

To view the NTSB report, visit bit.ly/3vxAzZg.

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