The future of oil and coal traveling by rail through downtown Spokane will be decided by voters in November.
The City Council voted 6-0 on Monday night to put the question before voters, with City Councilman Breean Beggs – chief architect of the legislation – saying he hoped the platform of a presidential election would send a strong message to lawmakers and regulators at the federal level.
“Spokane might be built on 100 years of railroads, but it’s not built on oil and coal trains,” Beggs said.
Supporters of the ballot initiative, which would impose a $261 fine for each rail car of crude oil and uncovered coal that passes through downtown, cited a potential crisis on the scale of a dozen that have occurred nationwide since 2010. David Kovac, a representative of the Spokane Firefighters Union, said his organization supported the ban on oil trains specifically because of the potential safety risk to first responders dealing with a derailment downtown.
“The safety of our membership, as well as the community we serve, is paramount,” Kovac said.
Others cited concerns about fossil fuels in general, but City Council President Ben Stuckart said climate change was not a factor in his decision to put the issue on the ballot.
Opponents accused the City Council of targeting fossil fuels for political reasons, despite other dangerous chemicals being transported by rail, and said passing the ordinance would snarl the city in unnecessary lawsuits.
“I think it’s a shame that our City Council members are spreading fear and panic in our community needlessly,” said Cindy Zapotocky, a former chairwoman of the Spokane County Republican Party.
Beggs said Monday he believed the proposed ordinance would comply with federal law because it seeks to protect the Spokane aquifer from the effects of spilled oil and coal dust.
“Given that the threat is so large, we think it’s defensible,” Beggs said.
The Federal Railway Safety Act, first passed by Congress in 1970, permits local governments to adopt rules to “eliminate or reduce an essentially local safety or security hazard” if the Department of Transportation has not taken action. Beggs said Spokane’s unique aquifer would likely withstand a legal challenge as an “essentially local” hazard, though the courts have struck down local regulations pertaining to rivers because they are more prevalent near railroad tracks than aquifers.
“It can be done, but it is challenging,” Beggs said.
Courtney Wallace, a regional spokeswoman for BNSF Railway, said Monday’s vote was “disappointing” and cited the rail line’s own work to reduce coal dust by treating rail cars before they’re sent out from mines.
“This sets a really dangerous precedent,” Wallace said.
Before casting her vote to place the issue on the ballot, City Councilwoman Karen Stratton said she expected a legal challenge to the ordinance and urged voters to “do their homework.” Her colleague Amber Waldref said she, too, was conflicted about putting the issue before voters, but the city needed to protect the safety of the river and its drinking water.
“I do worry about reversing all those investments we’ve made to protect our river,” Waldref said.
City Councilman Mike Fagan was absent from the meeting Monday. Stuckart said he received an email from Fagan, who is out of the country, before the vote, saying he would have voted against putting the measure on the ballot.