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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane City Council mulling vote on fines for oil, coal trains through downtown

Companies shipping crude oil or coal by rail through downtown Spokane would be fined hundreds of dollars for each train car under a law the City Council will consider placing on the November ballot.

Declaring the transport of coal and oil “inherently dangerous” to public health, the law would make such shipments a civil infraction punishable by a fine of up to $261 for each train car transporting those resources. The ordinance is being proposed after a majority of the Spokane City Council earlier this summer condemned Union Pacific Railroad for resuming the transport of crude through Mosier, Oregon, following the derailment of a train that had passed through Spokane hours earlier, causing fires and leaking oil into the Columbia River.

“I want the public to weigh in, instead of the council just passing an ordinance,” City Council President Ben Stuckart said. “At the very least, I want a showing of where the community is at on this issue.”

The Spokane City Council will vote on whether to add a law that would authorize fines for oil and coal train operators to the November ballot on Monday at 6 p.m. at City Hall.

Stuckart said Oakland, California, and Vancouver, Washington, recently approved bans on new oil refinery facilities, but Spokane may be the first municipality seeking to financially punish those who transport coal and oil.

The law cites the proposed danger to Spokane’s water supply and schools as justification for the fines, which Stuckart believes will stand up to scrutiny from the courts.

The lone vote in June against a resolution targeting Union Pacific came from Councilman Mike Fagan, who called the vote “a political statement” that singled out just one type of dangerous cargo hauled by rail.

A second proposal, forwarded by local physician and political activist Gunnar Holmquist, would call for an outright ban on oil and coal train traffic through Spokane to be written into the city’s charter. The ballot initiative cites the dangers of climate change as the need for the ban.

“This is the most severe and pressing human health crisis we face as a species,” said Holmquist, who has in the past advocated in favor of wide-reaching reforms to local government sponsored by the group Envision Spokane. Those reforms have been repeatedly stricken from the ballot by court rulings.

City Council members split 3-3 on whether to also consider Holmquist’s initiative for the November ballot, meaning the proposal will now go to the city’s hearing examiner and won’t appear until at least next year. Holmquist said he felt “set aside” by the council’s inaction.

“It’s really hard to understand that a City Council would be so casual, and so dismissive, about this,” Holmquist said.

Stuckart said a charter amendment would lack enforcement measures and might not stand up to a court challenge.

He believes companies would pay the fines, or change their rail routes, if the courts ruled in favor of the Spokane ordinance, though Stuckart said such a law hasn’t been legally tested, to his knowledge.