Investigation continues on train derailment


Investigators say they still haven’t found an explanation for the Custer derailment that caused fires after 10 train cars carrying highly flammable crude oil overturned from tracks on December 22.

“We are still working with our partners to determine the cause of the accident and have not ruled anything out,” an FBI Seattle field office spokesperson said in a January 5 statement to The Northern Light.

The 108-car train was traveling from North Dakota to Ferndale when it derailed around 11:40 a.m. at the 7500 block of Portal Way, causing fires to burn until 8 p.m. that night. No injuries resulted from the derailment.

Christopher O’Neil, a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) spokesperson, said his agency is only focused on investigating the performance of the DOT-117 tank cars involved in the derailment. These investigations look at things like the competence of people operating the train, equipment standards and the environment surrounding the accident.

“Our job is to understand how and why an accident happened to prevent it from happening again,” he said.

The agency doesn’t conduct criminal investigations or determine probable cause of an accident, O’Neil added. The NTSB has a memorandum of understanding with the FBI to also investigate if crime was involved. An FBI spokesperson previously told The Northern Light that agents would leave an investigation if they determined no foul play was involved. O’Neil said the same was true if his agency found foul play during its safety investigation.

It’s not uncommon for the NTSB, FBI and local law enforcement to work together, especially when collecting evidence, O’Neil said.

Concern about the cause of derailment arose because at least 41 shunts, which can cause derailment, have been placed on tracks in Whatcom and Skagit counties since January 2020, according to a press release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for Western Washington. Two Bellingham residents were arrested on November 28 for allegedly tampering with tracks in Bellingham.

BNSF spokesperson Courtney Wallace said in an email that environmental work continues as BNSF and ecology crews excavate and replace the contaminated soil. Wallace also added no cause has been determined.

O’Neil expects the NTSB’s preliminary report on the Custer derailment to be published within 30 to 90 days of the accident.


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