Business, Industry Leaders Say Rail Initiative Threatens Washington’s Competitiveness

A controversial Spokane initiative to fine the transportation of oil and coal would harm Washington’s economy and competitiveness, opponents say. Photo: Morven

A controversial Spokane ballot initiative would fine fossil fuel businesses planning to transport their commodity through city limits, which opponents say violates federal law, and would harm Washington’s trade network and industry.

Initiative No. 2016-06 would amend the Spokane Municipal Code to make it a class 1 civil infraction for rail car owners to ship uncontained coal and highly flammable oil through city limits or within 2,000 feet of a school, hospital or the Spokane River. The ordinance would fine rail car owners $261, per car, for shipping those fossil fuels through city limits. Safer Spokane is sponsoring the measure, and backers argue its main thrust is to protect public safety by holding companies accountable for potential dangers they may create.

The push for the initiative began last June when a Union Pacific train derailed in Mosier, Oregon last December, according to Spokane City Councilmember Breean Beggs. No one was injured but the fire burned for 14 hours and warranted evacuations.

“It’s balancing safety and the needs of all parties. Right now, these dangerous oil cars go through Spokane and we don’t get any benefit from it and we accept the safety risk. We’re just saying that’s great if you want to ship oil through, but make sure it’s safe before you do,” he said.

However, business leaders are sounding the warning over the threat to Washington’s economic wellbeing. “This is illegal, pure and simple,” said Michael Cathcart in a recent Keep Washington Competitive (KWC) press release. “The railroads have moved fossil fuels through Spokane for decades, and rail remains the safest, most efficient means of moving these commodities. Yet because of the politics around fossil fuels, we’re willing to jeopardize a major trade network for our city, our state and our region,” he said.

Cathcart is executive director of Better Spokane, a Spokane-based civic engagement organization advocating for greater business consideration in public policy decisions.

The initiative originally required railroads to pay for any penalties, according to Beggs. Affected railroads met with the backers of the initiative to explain they had no control over commodities shipped on their lines and requested a change in the language, which was updated to hold the producers responsible instead. Last year, the majority of the Spokane City Council decided to take it off the ballot but decided it was still important for voters to decide and revised the initiative.

Earlier this month, Safer Spokane submitted 5,200 signatures at Spokane City Hall – enough to make it on the ballot.

On Monday, June 26, the Spokane City Council voted unanimously to send the ballot measure to the county auditor for signature verification. On July 12, the Spokane County Elections Office determined the initiative had the required signatures needed for ballot consideration.

Last year, Brian McGinn, hearing examiner for the city of Spokane, wrote to the city council that “federal authority over rail operations cannot be usurped through an exercise of local police powers.”

Although railroads would no longer be penalized for rail cars traveling via their lines through the city, Courtney Wallace, spokeswoman for Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) Railway, told Townhall news the railroad was “obligated by federal law to move commodities” and cannot deny coal or oil businesses from moving trains on their railways.

“Shipping crude by rail is the safest mode of land transportation,” Justin Jacobs, spokesman for the Union Pacific railroad, told the Spokesman-Review. “Railroads deliver crude oil safely 99.99 percent of the time.”

Beggs told Lens the initiative requires highly flammable oil under pressure to be conditioned before it passes through Spokane. If the owner of the railcar refuses, they must pay a fine for taking the resource through the city without the initiative’s prescribed preparation. Alternatively, businesses can reroute around Spokane.

John Stuhlmiller, CEO of the Washington State Farm Bureau, expressed concern with the initiative’s goal and its effect on the agriculture industry.

“Rail is the lifeblood of our state and for our region. This is a serious threat to our farmers, growers, ranchers, manufacturers and exporters who depend on rail to move through Spokane,” he said in the KWC release. “If voters ultimately approve this measure in the fall there will be legal repercussions and that could affect the shipment of other materials, not just coal and oil. I’m hopeful people will see the greater value of the railroads and how essential they are to today’s way of life.”

On Monday, July 24, the Spokane City Council elected in a 5-1 vote to move the initiative to the November 7 ballot.

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