Cause of train derailment and crude oil fire still under investigation

Investigators are still working to determine what caused a train derailment and crude oil fire in Whatcom County Tuesday

During a news conference Wednesday morning, ecologists with the state Department of Ecology said they are still assessing the site north of Bellingham near Custer, but so far have not found any impacts to off-site waterways. 

Crews are in the process of removing crude oil from the damaged containers and other containers nearby. Once they're empty they'll remove the cars from the site. 

There have been no impacts on wildlife and no injuries to crews on the ground. Air monitoring continues.

The 108-car train was carrying crude oil to the Phillips 66 refinery in Ferndale when seven cars derailed in the Custer-Grandview area around 11:45 a.m. Two of those went up in flames and sent a billow of black smoke into the air, prompting evacuations for everyone within a half-mile radius. The evacuation orders were lifted several hours later. 

The cars that ruptured were the DOT-117 car, the newer, safer design for hazardous cargo.

BNSF spokesperson Courtney Wallace said the company will not speculate whether the derailment was a criminal act. That will be up to law enforcement, she said.

Last month federal authorities in Seattle charged two people with a terrorist attack on train tracks, saying they placed "shunts" on Burlington Northern Santa Fe tracks. "Shunts" consist of a wire strung across the tracks, mimicking the electrical signal of a train. The devices can cause trains to automatically brake and can disable railroad crossing guards.

Authorities said the pair were opposed to the construction of a natural gas pipeline across British Columbia when they interfered with the operation of a railroad in Washington state.

The FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force has said there have been dozens of such cases involving BNSF tracks since January, with a message claiming responsibility posted on an anarchist website early this year.

RELATED: Crude oil fire out, investigation continues after train derailment in Whatcom County

In one, shunts were placed in three locations in northwest Washington on Oct. 11, prompting emergency brakes to engage on a train that was hauling hazardous materials and flammable gas. The braking caused a bar connecting the train’s cars to fail; the cars became separated and could have derailed, authorities said.

Home to five oil refineries, Washington state sees millions of gallons of crude oil move by rail through the state each week, coming from North Dakota and Alberta

The Associated Press contributed to this report.