Spokane Residents Want to Bar Fossil Fuel Railcars

SPOKANE, Wash. (CN) — Residents of Spokane have sued the federal government for the right to ban railroads from carrying fossil fuels through the city, an initiative the city placed on the ballot last year, then removed as legally indefensible because of federal pre-emption.

Dr. Gunnar Holmquist, who sponsored the initiative petition, is the lead plaintiff in the Jan. 31 federal lawsuit against the United States. All of his six plaintiffs were arrested and charged with trespassing on BNSF property in two protests last year.

Holmquist submitted two proposed citizen’s initiatives to the City Council last year, which, if approved by voters, would prohibit “the transportation of coal or crude oil by rail within the City of Spokane, as a violation of the right of the people of Spokane to a healthy climate.”

The council twice declined to put the initiative on the November ballot, citing pre-emption by the Interstate Commerce Termination Act and the Federal Railroad Safety Act. A member of the council then proposed a ballot proposition to amend the City Code to prohibit trains from carrying fossil fuels through town. The City Council voted unanimously on July 25 to put the proposition on the Nov. 8 ballot.

The city’s hearing examiner on Aug. 2, however, told the council that its proposition too would be pre-empted by federal law, and that “the proposed ban on the transport of oil and coal by rail is therefore outside the scope of the initiative power.”

The City Council rescinded its resolution on Aug. 25 and withdrew the resolution.

Holmquist et al. claim that the federal laws “violate the federally secured constitutional right of the people of the City of Spokane to a livable climate and to local community self-government, when applied to preempt local laws that provide greater protections for people’s rights, and greater protections for their health, safety, and welfare.”

Their attorney Lindsey Schromen-Wawrin reiterated that in an interview.

“The plaintiffs recognize that continued fossil fuel extraction is the primary cause of increased atmospheric greenhouse gas emissions, which is causing climate destabilization, mass species extinction and widespread human suffering,” he said.

BNSF spokeswoman Courtney Wallace said the ordinance and the lawsuit are unnecessary.

“The reality is that 99.998 percent of all hazardous materials moving on BNSF travel without incident,” Wallace said. “This kind of ban would disrupt interstate commerce. BNSF transports the goods we all use every day, including food, clothing, energy products, coal and electronics. The market determines what railroads move and by disrupting interstate commerce, you run the risk of harming the economy.”

The plaintiffs seek declaratory judgment and an injunction.

Schromen-Wawrin is with the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund in Port Angeles.

Spokane, pop. 211,000, is in eastern Washington, 34 miles from Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.

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