Special to ICT

SWINOMISH RESERVATION, Washington — A BNSF train leaving a Western Washington oil refinery with diesel fuel derailed shortly after midnight on March 16 on the Swinomish Reservation about 80 miles north of Seattle.

It was one of three BNSF derailments in three days and occurred as the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community and BNSF Railway prepare to go to trial over the company’s apparent violation of a right-of-way and easement agreement on the tribe’s lands.

The latest derailments come amid renewed national attention to rail safety after a toxic derailment last month in East Palestine, Ohio, and other derailments in Michigan, Alabama and elsewhere.

No injuries were reported and no fuel reportedly entered an adjacent bay that is a habitat for salmon, forage fish, shellfish, seals, otters, shorebirds and bald eagles. Authorities believe up to 3,100 gallons of fuel spilled into a berm on the landside of the tracks.

“We have a long way to go, but we know that things could have been much, much worse,” Swinomish Chairman Steve Edwards said in a statement on Thursday, March 16. “We at Swinomish will continue to do everything we can to protect the waters and natural resources around us, while ensuring public safety.”

On Wednesday, March 15, eight BNSF freight rail tankers reportedly carrying corn syrup and corn meal derailed near Topock, Arizona; no injuries were reported.

Then, on March 17, a BNSF train carrying vegetable products and corn meal derailed in Topeka, Kansas.The train stayed upright, was placed back on the rail and returned to service that day, BNSF spokeswoman Lena Kent told ICT.

The Topock line was also expected to be placed back online on Friday, March 17, Kent said.

Meanwhile, a federal trial is set to begin at 9 a.m. Monday, March 20, in U.S. District Judge Robert S. Lasnik’s court in Seattle in the right-of-way dispute. Swinomish is suing BNSF for running more trains and cars across the tribe’s lands than are permitted by a right-of-way and easement agreement.

The derailment at Swinomish took place on tracks that run along Padilla Bay, one of 30 estuaries in the National Estuarine Research Reserve system. The Swinomish Lodge and Casino and the Swinomish RV Park look out toward the bay, which is backdropped by snowcapped Mount Baker.

The reservation is located east of March Point, a peninsula that extends between Fidalgo and Padilla bays. The point was originally within the Swinomish Reservation boundaries established in the Treaty of Point Elliott in 1855, but President Ulysses S. Grant removed the land from the reservation to make it available for non-Native ownership – an act that the Swinomish Tribe says was illegal because only Congress has such authority.

Farming began on March Point in the late 1800s, a short-lived airport opened in 1928, and the first of two oil refineries began operation in 1955.

‘Diesel on the ground’

The BNSF train was heading east from a refinery and nearing Swinomish Channel, which leads from Padilla Bay to Skagit Bay, when it derailed shortly before reaching the bridge over the channel.

First responders included the Swinomish Police Department, BNSF, Skagit County Fire District 13, and personnel from Marathon and HollyFrontier refineries.

There were seven cars in the train, including two locomotives, one buffer car, and four tank cars, according to the unified command, which was formed to coordinate response to the derailment. The two locomotives derailed, and the buffer car partially derailed.

Cause of the derailment had not been determined as of Friday, March 17.

“Responders arrived on the scene and found diesel on the ground and ongoing discharge from one of the locomotives,” according to the unified command. “As a precautionary measure, cleanup contractors deployed boom to contain any spilled diesel from reaching the water and placed additional boom immediately offshore.”

U.S. Coast Guard drone and helicopter flights over the scene indicate there were no impacts to wildlife or the marine environment, the unified command reported. No petroleum sheen has been observed in the water.

By Friday, excavators and trucks were removing contaminated soil from the site. One truck driver, waiting to take another load of contaminated soil to a permitted facility, said he had worked through the night and into the day.

The unified command consists of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Washington State’s Department of Ecology, BNSF Railway, Skagit County Department of Emergency Management, and the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community.

A lare excavator with its bucket open, ready to scoop contaminated soil, a person in a high-visablity jacket and hardhat walks in the foreground
An excavator removes contaminated soil on Friday, March 17, 2023, from the site where a BNSF train derailed the previous day on the Padilla Bay waterfront on the Swinomish Reservation near Anacortes, Washington. Officials said about 3,100 gallons of diesel spilled onland but did not appear to get into the waterways. (Photo by Richard Walker for ICT)

“I am very grateful to all the first responders who worked tirelessly last night and through the day today,” tribal chairman Edwards said in the statement. “Fire District 13, the Swinomish Police Department, Swinomish Emergency Management, teams from the Marathon and HollyFrontier refineries, and our state and federal partners all pulled together to ensure the safety of the public and to minimize harm to the environment.”

One nearby guest at the Swinomish RV Park said he didn’t hear the slow-moving train derail and didn’t know what happened until he got up that morning.

“I looked out the kitchen window and there was a train on its side,” said Doug Stave, who is a frequent guest at the park, along with his wife and two golden retrievers.

They enjoy the cool sea breeze, morning coffee at their portable fire pit, and the sight of boats entering the bay from Swinomish Channel and herons flying in from a nearby rookery to fish near the shore.

On Thursday, however, he watched as the unified command mobilized, the train was righted and placed back onto the tracks, and the cleanup began.

“They’ve been going to it since then,” he said.

The U.S. averages about three train derailments per day, according to federal data, but relatively few cause disasters.

Last month, however, a freight train carrying hazardous chemicals derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, near the Pennsylvania border. The derailment ignited a fire that sent up clouds of toxic smoke and forced the evacuation of hundreds of people.

Great Blue Herons gather at the railroad tracks along PadillaBay, with oil refineries and forests in the background
Great Blue Herons gather at the railroad tracks along Padilla Bay, with oil refineries and forests in the background, near the sitewhere a BNSF train carrying diesel fuel derailed on the Swinomish Reservation. The area is home to what is considered one of the largest colonies of Great Blue Herons in Western North America. Officials said about 3,100 gallons of diesel spilled on land but did not appear toget into the waterways. (Photo by Richard Walker for ICT)

Environmental concerns

Before they cross Swinomish lands, eastbound fuel trains roll slowly past grazing cows, various businesses and industries, and a 10-acre forested hill that is home to what the Skagit Land Trust says is one of the largest Great Blue Heron colonies in Western North America.

The Swinomish Tribe has treaty-protected resource rights within its historical territory – Padilla Bay included – and has been a vigorous initiator and defender of environmental cleanup and protection efforts here and elsewhere in the region.

On Friday, March 17, Skagit Land Trust volunteers Sue Ehler, Shirley Hoh and Anne Winkes walked past the site of the derailment, with long lenses and notebooks in hand, conducting one of their regular heron surveys.

The three were asked by a site safety officer to move behind the police caution tape. They did so and continued their count, documenting 31 herons near the entrance to Swinomish Channel.

The derailment seemed to drive home all that needs to be protected here: the eelgrass beds, the tidal flats, the salt marshes and the pocket estuaries – all of which support life of the Great Blue Heron and other species.

“It has an incredible amount of eelgrass in it, which is good foraging grounds and a good reason for the heron population here,” Winkes said.

Lead image: Responders work to clean up the diesel spill on Friday, March 17,2023, one day after a BNSF train derailment on the Padilla Baywaterfront on the Swinomish Reservation in Washington State. (Photo by Richard Walker for ICT)

Richard Arlin Walker, Mexican/Yaqui, is an ICT correspondent reporting from Western Washington.