KIRO 7 Investigates: Toxic chemical train derailments spark safety concerns in Washington

In the place where a train derailed in March, Earl Cowan remembered getting the phone call.

“I think my initial response was, are you serious?”

Cowan is the police chief for the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community.

Two locomotives derailed on the reservation, spilling three thousand gallons of diesel on the ground, not far from the waters where the Swinomish people have long fished.

Crews cleaned up the spill.

But a judge ruled Burlington Northern Santa Fe violated an easement with the tribe by running 100-car trains of crude oil across the reservation to a refinery when only 25-car trains were allowed.

This incident happened six weeks after a chemical train derailed in Ohio, triggering major evacuations and new worries about rail safety.

“This was a relatively small incident compared to what happened in Ohio but the community impact here was huge,” Cowan said.

Much of the cargo carried on trains through Western Washington is perfectly safe.

But some tank cars have placards with hazardous material codes.

On others, the contents are in plain English.

“That’s chlorine right there,” Herb Krohn told KIRO 7, watching a passing train on the Seattle waterfront.

Krohn is a railroad veteran and a leader of SMART, the nation’s largest rail union.

Since the early 1900′s, trains have traveled beneath Downtown Seattle in the mile-long Great Northern Tunnel.

Tunnel safety became a big concern after a runaway train carrying crude oil derailed in Quebec in 2013, killing 47 people.

The tunnel has a new system for emergency communications, but not one for fire suppression, according to fire officials and BNSF.

In 2014, BNSF trained Seattle firefighters on a foam truck the railroad bought for the city.

Since then, a Union Pacific derailment in the Columbia River Gorge and a BNSF derailment in Custer both involved Bakken crude.

KIRO 7 checked federal records and found between 1975 and 2022, there were 577 accidents in Washington with trains carrying hazardous materials, 23 of them with hazmat releases.

“There are longstanding serious rail safety issues that are systemic across the United States,” Krohn said.

Krohn said states should be allowed to adopt railroad safety standards because federal rules are heavily influenced by industry.

“They adopt very low standards because the railroads want low standards because they want low costs,” Krohn said.

Krohn says locomotive crews already can’t monitor what’s happening on the cars behind them and is concerned about the trend of longer trains.

Regarding a long train, “If properly equipped, if properly operated. I don’t think it’s fundamentally less safe,” said Allan Zarembski, who leads the railroad engineering and safety program at the University of Delaware.

Zarembski points out that derailment numbers are down.

“It’s been a pretty downward trend and a consistently downward trend in derailments and accidents and people killed, you know, sort of whatever measure you want to use,” he said.

BNSF says more than 99.99 percent of hazardous materials reach their destination without being released, and that the railroad has made significant investments in infrastructure and safety training.

The railroad said fire departments are now using an industry app to find out what’s in each rail car in an emergency.

What’s being carried on the rails is a worry for many communities, including the Swinomish tribe. still reeling from a close call.

“It’s been a concern for our tribal leaders as long as this railway has been flowing,” Police Chief Earl Cowan said at the scene of the March derailment