Crews removing railcars after spill at Chambers Bay

Lights from a truck illuminate train cars near Chambers Bay after two trains crashed about 8 p.m. Saturday.
Lights from a truck illuminate train cars near Chambers Bay after two trains crashed about 8 p.m. Saturday. The Olympian

A hazardous chemical that created a scare when it spilled after a freight train derailed and sideswiped another near Chambers Bay Golf Course did not leak into Puget Sound and poses no risk to the public, officials said today.

BNSF Railway crews and contractors worked throughout the day and night Saturday and today to clean up the area where 50 gallons of sodium hydroxide, or lye, soaked the shoreline.

The chemical is used in industry and to regulate the pH levels of water but can be hazardous and cause breathing problems and burns.

The southbound train that was struck was hauling garbage from Everett to Roosevelt, near Kelso. Its two derailed cars were set right early today, and the freight train was pulled away. The tracks were scheduled to reopen late this afternoon.

A BNSF spokesman said there was a possibility that the northbound tracks could open at midnight but that cleanup might take three weeks.

Crews began the time-intensive task of transferring the chemical from four toppled railcars into tanker cars this afternoon, a process that could take six hours per car.

Three railcars lay in a line on the shore, with a fourth lying perpendicular with a boxcar partly atop it. U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Matt Denning said that during high tide, about a foot of the once-leaking railcar was submerged in water.

The chemical leaked for more than five hours through a metal bolt that was sheared off during the 8:30 p.m. derailment.

Shortly after the accident, first responders placed a plastic bag beneath the spill and caught roughly half of the lye. The other 25 gallons sunk into the sand and will dilute over time.

“We’re very fortunate that a (only) small amount of sodium hydroxide leaked onto the shoreline,” said Ron Holcomb, a hazardous-materials specialist with the state Department of Ecology. “Whenever a chemical substance hits the environment, there’s an impact. But the impact is localized to this area.”

BNSF is investigating the cause of the derailment, which sent 12 cars careening off the tracks and derailed two others on the southbound train after it was sideswiped.

Four of the railcars on the northbound train, which was heading from Portland to Vancouver, B.C., were each carrying up to 15,000 gallons of lye.

Twenty pieces of heavy equipment were brought in to move the derailed cars. Cables were going to be placed around the cars to pull them upright.

After drilling a hole in the cars carrying the chemical, workers were going to vacuum the lye and move the substance into tanker cars.

BNSF is assessing what to do with the four derailed cars that were transporting lye; spokesman Gus Melonas said they will not be put back on the tracks.

The remaining eight derailed cars were being pulled far from the tracks.

“We’re going to scrap them on site. Removal will be done for the next three weeks,” Melonas said.

While officials tried to clear the tracks, freight trains were rerouted elsewhere through Washington, and the Coast Guard patrolled the shoreline to keep boaters away.

Officials stressed that there is no danger to the public.

Residents within a one-mile radius of the spill received automated phone calls warning them to stay indoors as a precaution.

A follow-up automated call came around 1:20 a.m. today to say crews were still on the scene cleaning up and that there was no longer a threat to residents or animals.

Interested passersby frequently pulled into the golf course parking lot today to look down on the wreckage and occasionally snap photographs.

“This was an extremely rare incident,” Melonas said. “You know, 99.99 percent of hazmat on BNSF makes it to its destination without spill of content.”

Stacia Glenn: