Spokane Residents’ Bid to Block Rail Transport of Fuels Sputters

SPOKANE, Wash. (CN) – A federal judge has dismissed a bid to keep oil and gas from being transported by rail through the Washington state city of Spokane, finding residents didn’t exhaust their options before filing their lawsuit.

A group of Spokane residents claimed the transport of fossil fuels by rail through their city impedes their right to a “healthy and livable environment.” Before filing the lawsuit, they asked the Spokane City Council to ban rail transport of fuels through the city, concerned how the use of fossil fuels is creating global warming.

But the residents said federal law doesn’t railroads to discriminate about the types of freight they accept, a provision encoded in the Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act (ICCTA), and would preempt any local laws passed about fossil fuels. This possible preemption led the City Council to decline to put the residents’ request on the ballot, according to the lawsuit filed against the United States.

The government moved to dismiss, and in a July 14 order U.S. District Judge Thomas Rice said the residents had other options they did not exercise despite the possibility that federal law would preempt any law passed by the City Council.

“Plaintiffs could have attempted to circumvent the City Council by garnering support from 5 percent of the electorate, which would have placed the measure on the ballot regardless of any legal opinion,” Judge Rice penned. “Plaintiffs argue that pursuing the initiative through the support of the electorate would be futile because third parties can bring suit challenging the legality of the initiative based on preemption.”

The possibility of being challenged over the legality of the initiative would be a chance to bring the issue “front and center”, Rice said, and give the residents the chance to defend their initiative with the same arguments submitted – prematurely – in this case.

Rice also questioned the residents’ legal arguments in support of the rail ban, noting that rather than claiming rail cars of fuel could harm the city the residents’ lawsuit said the use of fossil fuels “will eventually lead to mass extinction.”

He added that even if railcars are banned from transporting the fuel through Spokane, doing so “may even increase fossil fuel emissions if trains must travel around Spokane or if the fossil fuel is delivered by truck.”

Lindsey Schromen-Wawrin, attorney for the plaintiffs in the case, expressed disappointment at the ruling.

“Judge Rice said this case is not ready to be heard by the courts. Yet every day of inaction on keeping coal and oil in the ground makes the climate situation worse,” she said. “The people of Spokane are ready to take action to stop climate change. I hope the courts will soon be ready to side with the people.”

Schromen-Wawrin said her clients are reevaluating how best to get the issue before the court.

The U.S. Department of Justice did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the case.


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