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City Council removes controversial oil and coal train fines from ballot

Spokane will not be the test site for unprecedented local regulation of trains moving coal and oil, at least not this fall.

Three weeks after putting on the ballot an ordinance that would fine railroad operators up to $261 per car carrying flammable crude or coal through downtown Spokane, the City Council voted 5-2 on Monday to withdraw the measure. Supporters cited the certainty of a successful legal challenge to the proposal and a desire to recruit more partners concerned about derailments.

City Council President Ben Stuckart, who led the charge with a PowerPoint on July 25 depicting a dozen fiery oil train derailments, said he now believed the fine would expose the citizens to too much legal liability.

“I don’t believe that it’s legally defensible, or defensible for us to bring forward,” Stuckart said.

Stuckart said he’d received legal advice from students at the Gonzaga Law School clinic, as well as the council’s policy adviser, Brian McClatchey, before changing his mind. He said at the July 25 meeting that the city needed to “try every single argument we possibly can, in order to make a difference, and make Spokane safer.”

The votes to keep the issue on the ballot came from Councilman Breean Beggs, who crafted the ordinance’s language, and Councilwoman Lori Kinnear, who said the city was in no better bargaining position with railroad operators than they were last month.

Beggs said after the vote he believed the ordinance could have withstood a legal challenge. But he said the more important accomplishment with the proposal was informing the public about what could be done to oppose shipments from the Bakken shale oil fields in North Dakota.

“This has amplified the conversation,” Beggs said. “Now the question is out there.”

Bakken oil is more explosive than other types of oil, according to a study performed by the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration in 2014. The proposed ordinance would have targeted oil moving through Spokane from North Dakota, which Beggs said does not go through the same treatment process to neutralize explosive elements that oil in other parts of the country receives.

“All our ordinance really does is say, hey Bakken, you need to do the same thing,” Beggs said. The safety standards could be put in place for the price of 4 cents per gallon, Beggs said, dropping pennies one-by-one on the dais with metallic clangs.

The council members who joined Stuckart in changing their minds to remove the issue from the ballot said proposing the ordinance set the railroad companies at odds with the city, which would complicate any efforts to improve safety standards through negotiations.

“I’m hoping that everybody here is going to realize that we’d much rather be doing this, moving forward solving our public safety concerns, with those folks as partners, and not as adversaries,” Councilman Mike Fagan said of the railroad companies.

But Beggs said that’s a question citizens should have had a chance to answer.

“It’s a fairly modest proposal, in my opinion,” Beggs said. “I’m going to vote against this because I think voters should decide.”

In recent weeks, multiple agencies, including groups supporting railroads, had spoken out against the measure, saying the City Council was attempting to usurp too much authority from Congress to regulate rail traffic. Supporters, including the local firefighters union, cited fiery crashes involving trains moving Bakken crude.

Stuckart asked the council to suspend the rules to allow the council to consider the withdrawal vote Monday night. Had that not occurred, a Spokane County deadline to remove the question from the November ballot would have expired. The final day to remove an initiative from the November ballot is Thursday.


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