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Spokane voters reject fines for coal, oil trains traveling through downtown

UPDATED: Tue., Nov. 7, 2017, 10:20 p.m.

An oil train crosses Sprague and Division Street in Spokane Tuesday, Mar. 8, 2016, in downtown Spokane. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
An oil train crosses Sprague and Division Street in Spokane Tuesday, Mar. 8, 2016, in downtown Spokane. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Spokane voters rejected a proposal that would have fined certain coal and oil trains traveling through downtown.

Proposition 2 was failing with only 41 percent of votes cast in favor of the measure, which had been criticized as illegal and potentially embroiling the city in costly legal battles.

The initiative began life as a proposal before the City Council last summer. At the time, City Council President Ben Stuckart said he was spurred to action following the destruction in Mosier, Oregon, following the fiery derailment of a train carrying Bakken crude oil that had passed through downtown Spokane a few hours before.

Voters were asked to approve $261 fines for the owners of each rail car containing an uncovered coal shipment or oil that hadn’t been treated to reduce vapor pressure and flashpoint.

Union Pacific and BNSF, the region’s major rail carriers, fought the proposal from its inception, arguing they didn’t have the ability under federal law to decide which commodities they would transport and that rail was a safer option for transporting oil and coal than trucks taking the highways. A coalition of local businesses and prominent politicians, including Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich and Mayor David Condon, joined the fight against the proposition, arguing it would ensnare the city in potential legal battles and unduly burden commerce.

Michael Cathcart, campaign coordinator for the Committee to Protect Spokane’s Economy, which opposed the measure, said the ballot returns were in line with the group’s internal polling last month.

“The message was that we’re going to focus on your roads, and public safety, and this was a rejection of something that was clearly a distraction from that,” Cathcart said.

The Spokane Firefighters Union and a group calling itself Safer Spokane advocated for the measure. They dismissed claims the initiative was not legally defensible and said the city should do whatever it could to prevent a fiery explosion downtown, which could cost the city millions of dollars in cleanup and imperil lives at schools, hospitals and businesses.

The railroads, coal mining concerns and companies behind the proposed Vancouver Energy Terminal poured thousands of dollars into the campaign to defeat Proposition 2, with ads appearing on social media, TV and radio. The Committee to Protect Spokane’s Economy, a politcal group funding the effort to defeat the measure, raised $264,000, the bulk of that coming from BNSF. By comparison, the Safer Spokane group raised just $7,000, the bulk of that coming from individual contributors.

Todd Eklof, a coordinator for the Safer Spokane campaign, compared his group’s efforts to the Biblical clash between David and Goliath. He said supporters would continue to push for safety standards for coal and oil transport.

“We’re disappointed that Goliath proved victorious in this case,” he said. “We are happy about being able to raise the issue in the community.”