Anacortes derailment once again raises concerns of environmental damage to Western Washington

On March 16 just after midnight, a freight train jumped its tracks on the Swinomish Reservation near Anacortes. The estimated 5,000 gallons of diesel seeping into the local landscape carried dark echoes of the Feb. 3 East Palestine, Ohio, rail disaster, where a 50-car train carrying highly hazardous materials derailed and ignited into a raging mix of fire and toxic smoke.  

While the Washington State Department of Ecology is still assessing the environmental impact in Anacortes, the fallout from the Ohio derailment’s poisonous combination of chemicals -- mainly vinyl chloride -- immediately displaced hundreds of residents from their homes. There, officials detected chemicals in surface waters and groundwater, which has so far killed tens of thousands of fish and other animals; the public is now openly questioning the safety of local water pulled from impacted wells; and long-term health concerns are mounting both for humans and wildlife in the area.  

As much of the country reflects on the disaster, many have been asking ‘could this happen near me?’ The answer for this region, after the Anacortes derailment and the December, 2020 derailment in Custer, just north of Ferndale, and with the knowledge that there are three oil refineries within 20 miles of Bellingham - is pretty clear. 

How much can we expect to minimize environmental impacts from such rail accidents? WWU has resident experts on toxicology, ecological risk assessment, biology and chemistry ready to shed some light on some of the key features of this environmental event.  Ruth Sofield is the director of Western’s Institute of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, and a professor of Environmental Science; Wayne Landis is the former director of the Institute and Professor Emeritus of Environmental Science. Both recently talked with Western Today about measures we can take for minimizing fallout in the event of a local derailment with chemicals, and the different environmental scenarios leaders in the area need to plan for.  

WT: What can be done immediately after a train accident to minimize environmental impact? 

Landis: Assuming the train that derails is loaded with materials that could be toxic to the surrounding environment, relief crews would need to prevent the movement of the contamination off the site. There are barriers that can absorb chemicals. Coffer dams can be put in to keep chemicals from moving downstream and contaminated soils can be removed.  

Sofield: We do know that coal and oil trains pass through the Bellingham area. Crude oil is flammable and could cause smoke that would be an issue for inhalation. As a liquid, it may also run into water bodies adjacent to the tracks or seep into the ground. In those kinds of releases, we would think about the potential effects to aquatic wildlife and drinking water for humans. 

WT: What potential health-related risks – for both humans and wildlife – would authorities need to understand in the event of a toxic spill from a freight train? 

Landis: In addition to human health issues, I would expect exposure to pets and farm animals. Plus, the smoke from the fires contains particulates that can range from irritating to harmful. And with our rail lines running not just near major rivers and watersheds, but also directly adjacent to a sensitive marine coastline, we’d have many environmental resources that would need protection, including fish, shellfish, agriculture and other wildlife. 

Sofield: We have historically seen many examples of livestock and domestic pets being affected by accidental releases of chemicals. This can be because they are left behind when people evacuate and exposed to more, because they may process the chemical differently than humans, and because they may have habits that cause them to be around the chemicals more than humans would. There are also other consequences to the short-term and possible long-term health effects of a release like this.  

WT: It’s still too soon to tell what the cleanup process near Anacortes will require – but what about the East Palestine derailment?   

Sofield: It will start with extensive monitoring of soils, groundwater, surface water, and air to characterize the types of chemicals that are present, where they are, and how much there is. That will inform the next steps, which can range from just advising against drinking water from wells to extreme measures like moving residents temporarily while the cleanup happens, or even permanent relocations. 

WT: How long could it take to fully restore and de-toxify the affected area in Ohio? 

Sofield: It’s likely too early to tell. There has not yet been any accurate determination of the extent of the environmental damage, and it can take time to get the chemistry results back from the labs. And per the EPA, a very extensive process now must be followed, and there will be major negotiations (with the rail carrier) about the amount of cleanup and restoration. 

WT: Short of moving away temporarily, are there any steps that the local population there can take to stay safe and minimize long-term health risks? 

Landis: Staying away is a reasonable choice but my research of the area indicates that this is not a choice for many of the residents.  

This is a classic environmental justice issue where the people with fewer resources are those that are most often affected. Smell is not a useful indication of exposure to vinyl chloride and many other chemicals. The detection limit by smell for vinyl chloride is too high compared to the amount that can cause central nervous system effects. Plus, the sense of smell rapidly acclimates to the smell of the chemical so that the person no longer can sense it.  

Sofield: To Wayne’s point, in situations like these it’s critical to understand the populations in the immediate vicinity of the event, whether they’re economically disadvantaged or overburdened in some way, or if there are resources available to them. There are other consequences to the short-term and possible long-term health effects of a release like this. 

WT: What are some other environmental impacts that often get overlooked, but which we should be aware of? 

Sofield: There is fear associated with pollution that can affect people's behaviors, daily routines, and mental health. Economic vitality can be affected, with examples that include decreased property values or less tourism if that is part of an economy. That certainly would be the case here. Cultural practices can also be affected if environmental resources are impacted.   

Again, these considerations are in addition to the known and unknown health consequences of exposures to toxic substances, but are less studied and discussed. Bottom line, it would certainly be beneficial for local and state authorities, not just here, but around the country, to closely watch and learn from what we’re seeing in Ohio, in terms of policies and planning pre-accident, in terms of understanding the communities that could be most affected by such an accident, and in terms of the response, mitigation, and resources made available for people and for the environment post-accident.  

Landis: It is well-understood that transportation accidents and the environmental impacts that follow are due to a chain of events that end in the final tragedy and resource damage. The chain of events relates to both the cause of the initial event and then to missteps in the mitigation of health and environmental effects. The fact that these events still occur and that the environmental and health impacts are consistently underestimated argues that we as a society still have much learning to do and actions to take. 

Learn more about Western’s Institute for Environmental Toxicology & Chemistry at