Spokane Voters Asked to Ban Oil & Coal Trains

     SPOKANE, Wash. (CN) — The Spokane City Council will ask voters to ban trains carrying oil and coal car shipments through the city this November, an ordinance that railroads say is illegal if approved.
     In a 6-0 vote, the City Council affirmed that they believe the shipments pose a serious hazard to the city’s infrastructure and water supply.
     In the resolution, passed July 25, the City Council noted that the current rail lines run “through the heart of Spokane,” are 500 feet from two hospitals, near the business center of the city and cross the Spokane River — the sole source of drinking water for 500,000 people in the region.
     According to the resolution, the city does not want to “roll the dice” and risk being the center of a rail accident like those in Lac Megantic, Quebec, or Mosier, Oregon, where derailments have caused fatalities or oil spills.
     If passed, the measure would make transporting oil or coal through the city a class 1 civil infraction, resulting in a fine of $261 per car of prohibited materials.
     However, the main railroad operator BNSF responded to the City Council’s measure by warning that if passed by voters, the ordinance will be preempted by federal law.
     BNSF’s assistant vice president of community affairs Andrew Johnsen reminded the council in a letter that BNSF is bound by several federal laws, including the Interstate Commerce Termination Act and the Federal Railroad Safety Act, which would not allow the company to comply with a city regulation.
     “BNSF is under a legal obligation to provide transportation service upon reasonable request,” said Johnsen. “Because of its common-carrier obligation, BNSF is not able to turn away particular commodities or choose which commodities it transports.”
     Johnsen also noted that a similar prohibition passed in the District of Columbia in 2005 was ruled unlawful and said Spokane’s measure would be unenforceable.
     In addition, Johnsen encouraged the city to work with BNSF on safety concerns.
     “The reality is that 99.998 percent of all hazardous materials moving on BNSF travel without incident,” Johnsen said, and questioned the real motives of the proposal.
     “You have included coal in your ban, which is not even classified as a hazardous material, but it does not ban ethanol or other hazardous materials transported by rail. Why is this if your argument is one of safety? There are a number of better options to promote safety, including collaboration with industry and federal regulators to further enhance safety,” Johnsen said.
     Attorney and city councilman Breean Beggs, the chief architect of the measure, said he hopes the measure sends a strong message to regulators.
     “Spokane might be built on 100 years of railroads, but it’s not built on oil and coal trains,” Beggs said.
     The proposed ban on coal and oil cars will go to Spokane voters on Nov. 8.

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