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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion >  Editorial

Oil train blockade? The Spokane City Council is tilting at windmills.

A proposed city of Spokane initiative that would effectively ban oil and coal trains will go nowhere.

The City Council on Monday voted 6-0 to put such a proposition on the November ballot. It calls for a fine of $261 on every car of oil or uncovered coal transported through the city. For a typical unit train of 100 cars, that’s $26,100. Assume, conservatively, 10 trains a day, the fine climbs to $261,000.

No railroad would pay such fines and, of course, that’s the point. But attempting to impose high fines would be pointless.

Analyses by City Council Policy Advisor Brian McClatchey (July 21) and BNSF Railway Assistant Vice President Andrew Johnsen (July 26) outline the almost insurmountable hurdles to local or state intervention in railroad regulation.

The U.S. Constitution specifically reserves regulation of interstate commerce to the federal government. Recent accidents finally moved Congress and the U.S. Department of Transportation to establish standards for oil train cars and train operation that will significantly increase safety.

Councilman Breean Beggs says tougher local regulations that failed court tests did not rest on threats to unique resources like the Spokane Valley-Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer. The risk to our drinking water might pass legal muster.

But if oil endangers the aquifer, so do other fluids like ethanol, which the initiative does not address. Why are they omitted from the ordinance? And how to argue the threat is unique to Spokane when so many other communities in Washington and Idaho are equally at risk?

It would be a surprise if a court even reached those questions. As both McClatchey and Johnsen note, states or cities cannot take any action that unduly burdens interstate commerce. The proposed fines, or the rerouting of trains to avoid them, almost unquestionably creates such a burden.

The alternative for oil shipped from the Bakken field in North Dakota would most likely be a track along the Snake River and over its associated aquifers. How much sense does that make?

It becomes a game of Whack-An-Oil-Train that Spokane loses, throwing away money for attorneys in the process. And every time a bad initiative passes, and judges relying on the Constitution blow the whistle, voter cynicism increases.

The council should reconsider its decision to put the proposal on the ballot.

No question, oil trains present a grave threat to downtown Spokane. The odds of a destructive accident are infinitesimal, but the potential outcome catastrophic. Support for a ban from the Spokane Firefighters Union is entirely understandable.

Money spent on attorneys would be far better spent on providing them the best possible gear and training. BNSF has committed millions of dollars to help communities along its track prepare for a disaster. Spokane should take maximum advantage.

A final note: Johnsen’s letter says the “proposed ordinance could also have major negative economic impacts on Spokane’s and Washington State’s business climate.”

That ship has already sailed.

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