Public awareness campaign warns voters of Spokane rail proposition

Stakeholders from business, labor and public safety are vocalizing their concerns regarding a Spokane proposition that would impede the transportation of fossil fuels. Photo: Terry Cantrell

A public awareness campaign has launched to inform Spokane voters of the dangers of approving a proposition to fine rail car owners for transporting fossil fuels through city limits.

Stakeholders from public safety, labor and the business community highlighted their concerns about the potential passage of the measure during an August 17 tele-briefing.

“This is going to hurt the economy in Spokane, and not just Spokane, but the state of Washington,” Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich told callers.

“Besides being unconstitutional, illegal and unenforceable, the promoters of this proposition have not been exactly honest with the citizens of Spokane,” he added. “They want to paint this as a safety issue… if this was a safety issue… it would also include chlorine, ammonia or other hazmat materials coming across the rails.”

Last month, the Spokane City Council elected to move Initiative No. 2016-06 to the November ballot; it is now Proposition 2, and it would fine rail car owners $261 per car for shipping uncovered coal and crude oil not pressurized to 8 pounds per square inch(psi) through Spokane city limits.

In response, the business community sounded the alarm that the move would harm Washington’s competitiveness and weaken its relationship with the railroads transporting goods to the coast.

Also, the proposition would require businesses handing crude oil to pressurize the oil above and beyond what the state of North Dakota has determined is “stable, dead crude oil” at 13.7 psi. Currently, the commodity is already treated to meet the safety standard before the product is transferred to rail.

“When you look at the bill itself, it’s very much a proposition that is unenforceable, unconstitutional and is not lawful,” said Knezovich. “It will be immediately challenged, and there will be an injunction filed should it pass.”

On Monday, July 31, the council voted against bringing two advisory votes forward which would have allowed city residents to weigh in on how the city would pay for the legal defense of the proposed change should the proposal pass.

Last summer, the council heard a nearly identical measure, which the city’s hearing examiner deemed illegal due to federal authority preempting local authority in cases where railroads need to move commodities across state lines.

“Our concern is with the loss of jobs within the rail industry and other industries,” said Steve Warren, business representative with the International Association of Mechanists and Aerospace Workers (IAM&AW) District 751. “We subcontract regionally, locally and nationally. These jobs can be at risk under this restraint.”

While the true economic impact is not yet known, Warren argues that changes like this always have a direct effect on local family-wage jobs.

“We have products that run through Spokane from Kansas to Seattle. Affecting that could possibly affect customers down the road such as Boeing, Goodrich and Triumph.”

Also rising in opposition is Matt Ewers, senior vice president of Inland Empire Distribution Systems, Inc. The logistics company moves freight in and out of the Northwest via rail and truck, often connecting it to ocean carriers.

Moving these commodities via rail is already the safe and efficient option, argued Ewers, and the alternative would be having more trucks transporting goods which would contribute to road traffic and greenhouse gas emissions.

Ewers is against the proposition because city legal counsel has already determined it to be illegal.

“If the proposition passes, we are going to end up with legal challenges that will take away city resources and funds from the police and fire department, and things like filling potholes or maintaining parks to be used to fight legal challenges this proposition would incur.”

These are funds better spent on public safety, such as hiring the 40 police offers the city says it needs, argued Knezovich.

“That money is going to be wasted fighting a losing proposition in court and a multitude of court battles,” he added. “(Backers) will be sued by every commodity they attack, and every owner of that commodity they attack, and they will face multiple prongs of lawsuits and have to spend millions of dollars to fight because they want to pursue this.”

“We are really concerned about the city being distracted from some of the key priorities we need to be emphasizing,” said Michael Cathcart, executive director of Better Spokane.

“Roads are not well maintained; some crime is left somewhat unchecked and we see city council leaders who are not necessarily concerned with making Spokane most attractive for jobs or for people to come to the community.”

Cathcart continued, “I think it’s a real disservice to the community when a measure is advocated by city council members when we have priorities already being ignored.”

“The machinist union feel this is not the most reasonable alternative,” said Warren. “Family-wage jobs and the environment are important, but we need to do this in a more constructive way… what is practical and makes sense for people in the community.”

The Coalition to Protect Spokane’s Economy launched its campaign against Proposition 2 on Thursday, August 17.

“We’re going to be working hard over the next two-and-a-half months to educate Spokane voters on some of the negative intended or unintended ramifications, and to make sure they are informed voters when they cast their ballots starting in October in the fall election,” said Cathcart.

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