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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Knezovich, railroads tout rail safety as Spokane coal, oil train activists close in on ballot measure

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

Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich and representatives of the two railroads shipping coal and oil through downtown on Thursday detailed their work ensuring safe transport of the commodities.

“We have been running tabletop exercises, as far as potential disasters and everything else,” Knezovich said in the offices of Greater Spokane Inc. downtown, after meeting privately with invited guests along with representatives of Union Pacific and BNSF.

The gathering did not include members of an activist group seeking to fine railcar owners – often the oil and coal companies themselves – up to $261 for every car containing the commodities that travel through downtown. Jim Lee, one of the organizers of the group collecting signatures, said Thursday they’ll have the number of signees as early as Saturday to get the issue before voters in November.

“I really don’t think people have any comprehension of the economic impact of a big oil fire, or explosion, in downtown Spokane,” Lee said. Members of his group attempted to attend the meeting but were turned away because it was a private event. Members of the media questioned Knezovich and the railroad representatives after the presentation.

The sheriff continued his criticism of the initiative, saying that it appeared politically motivated for only targeting fossil fuels and not other dangerous materials, such as chlorine, that travel by rail through Spokane. Knezovich pulled up on his smartphone an account of a 2005 two-train collision in South Carolina that released 60 tons of chlorine gas, killing nine people (one day after the initial crash) and injuring more than 250 others.

“There are much more worrisome commodities that come across than that,” Knezovich said. “If this was truly about safety, you picked one that’s an inert rock, so it’s not going to do much. I don’t see this as a true challenge to safety, but I do think it’s important for our citizens of Spokane to realize all the work” that’s being done in advance of an unlikely derailment, the sheriff said, adding another agency simulation of responding to a derailment event was scheduled for later this month.

Lee said he hadn’t considered adding chlorine to the list of commodities for which owners would be fined, but he wouldn’t be against it. He also said the comparison ignored that there were ways to depressurize crude oil to frustrate combustion, a process he said wasn’t available with chlorine.

“You don’t have a hundred cars of chlorine going through on a unit train,” Lee said. “The other difference is there’s really no way to abate the hazard of chlorine. You ship it as is.”

A majority of the Spokane City Council, including Councilman Breean Beggs who has been working on the language of the proposed fine and potential legal defenses, challenged the railroads and their ability to respond to oil train disasters following the derailment of a Union Pacific train in Mosier, Oregon, last summer that released 42,000 gallons of Bakken crude just feet from the Columbia River. The train that left the tracks and caused the contamination, much of which was captured in the city’s stormwater system, had passed through Spokane a few hours before the incident.

Aaron Hunt, a spokesman for Union Pacific, said the railroad had made many safety improvements after the Mosier incident and lauded the emergency response.

“Our response to Mosier was very effective,” Hunt said. “It contained the fire. There were no human injuries, and fortunately the oil that did spill was contained in the wastewater treatment facility plant in the city of Mosier.”

Both Hunt and Courtney Wallace, a spokeswoman for BNSF, said the railroads hadn’t done any analysis to determine what route Bakken crude could take to the West Coast if Spokane is no longer a viable option for transport.

“Rail’s fixed. We’ve been here for more than 150 years,” Wallace said. “It’s not like we can just take the rail, and move, and take our toys and go home. If we wanted to build new rail somewhere else, it would be a big uphill battle.”

Lee praised BNSF for taking some steps to improve safety, such as imposing a 35 mph speed limit and inspecting tracks at least four times a week. The initiative targets the oil and coal companies, not the carriers, who Lee said he empathized with.

“We understand they’re common carriers,” Lee said, referring to the railroads’ status as transportation companies governed by a regulatory body. “This isn’t about the railroads. We like the railroads.”

Lee said his group will be collecting signatures for the initiative during the Earth Day festival in Riverfront Park this weekend and believes they’ll have the 2,586 signatures needed to get the issue on the November ballot by the end of Saturday.

Both Lee and the railroads hinted the courtroom, rather than the ballot, might be the final arbiter of the proposal.

Wallace would not say if BNSF was pondering legal action, but re-iterated the railroad believes the measure violates federal law.

“We will protect our brand,” she said. “We will protect our right to move the commodities.”