Order slowly restored after trains derail near Chambers Bay

Pierce County’s popular Chambers Creek Properties slowly returned to normal operations yesterday following disruptions caused by a train derailment over the weekend. 

According to Pierce County officials, at approximately 8 p.m. on Sat., Feb. 26, firefighters from West Pierce Fire and Rescue responded to reports of the derailment and arrived to find that two freight trains running in opposite directions on separate tracks sideswiped each other. Firefighters isolated the area and called in additional resources, including the Pierce County Hazardous Incident team comprising hazardous materials experts from throughout Pierce County, the United States Coast Guard, the Washington State Department of Ecology, Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF), the Anderson Island Fire Boat, the Guardian One Helicopter from the King County Sheriff’s Office, Pierce County Emergency Management, Pierce County Public Works and Utilities, and the National Response Center (Environmental Services). 

On Saturday, it was initially reported that a total of 13 cars derailed — 12 cars from the northbound track and one from the south. Three tankers were found to be on their sides on the beach, and a fourth was on the tracks. Representatives from BNSF confirmed that one of the tankers was leaking approximately 50 gallons of sodium hydroxide onto the shoreline. The Department of Ecology and the Coast Guard stated that this is an environmental concern as the material can harm the aquatic organisms that come in contact with it. One of the overturned tankers was underneath several box cars and did not appear to be leaking. Sodium hydroxide can create toxic gases when mixed with water and can cause burns to the respiratory tract, skin, eyes, and gastrointestinal tract, according to the Emergency Response Guide and Marine Safety data sheet. A broadcast notice to mariners was relayed to warn local boaters to keep clear of the area for their safety and the safety of the responders. Coast Guard personnel were on scene and working with the multiple agencies to evaluate the situation and determine next course of action. 

On Sunday, Lt. Cmdr. Matt Denning, Coast Guard Sector Puget Sound, and Ron Holcomb with the Department of Ecology reported that the threat to public safety and health from the chemical was negligible. Still, Pierce County continued to close off trails and a pedestrian bridge near the area due to the on-site activity. The Coast Guard Cutter Blue Shark patrolled the area to ensure boaters kept a safe distance from the incident site. A Coast Guard helicopter flew over the area at 8:40 a.m. Sunday and reported that there were no visible signs that the sodium hydroxide solution was leaking into the water. 

On Sunday evening, Pierce County officials updated their initial report on the incident and provided additional information. Fourteen rail cars derailed, four of which contained sodium hydroxide. Two separate fittings on one tank car leaked approximately 50 gallons of sodium hydroxide solution onto the shoreline. One leak was plugged and the other leak was being contained. At low tide Sunday, all 14 rail cars were out of the water. At high tide, five rail cars were in approximately one foot of water. The leaking sodium hydroxide solution did not come in contact with the tide. Each of the four tank cars contained approximately 15,000 gallons of sodium hydroxide solution, which was due to be pumped out of the tank cars prior to the cars being removed from the shoreline. 

There were no reports of injuries. The cause of the derailment is under investigation. 

As of yesterday, the Chambers Bay golf course, Chambers Bay Grill, the Soundview and Grandview trails, and the off-leash dog area were open to the public. For public safety reasons, the Bridge to the Beach remained closed while BNSF worked in the area to recover and repair the train cars and tracks damaged in the derailment.