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Battle lines drawn in political fight over coal, oil train fines in downtown Spokane

UPDATED: Thu., Aug. 17, 2017

FILE - An oil train crosses Sprague and Division Street in Spokane in March 2016. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
FILE - An oil train crosses Sprague and Division Street in Spokane in March 2016. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich repeated a promise Thursday to seek an immediate legal stop to fines on coal and oil companies transporting their commodities by rail through downtown, as players on both sides gird for a political fight in November.

During a news conference organized by the Committee to Protect Spokane’s Economy, a political action committee formed in opposition to the measure that will be on Spokane voters’ ballots this fall, Knezovich said that he had discussions with railroads about seeking an injunction if voters approve what he called an illegal law.

“I asked if they would help me in filing that injunction,” Knezovich said. “I will be one of those that is working toward filing an injunction.”

Knezovich later said he’d asked BNSF, one of the carriers that criticized the measure when it was first proposed by the Spokane City Council last summer, if they’d be interested in joining his legal challenge. A railroad spokeswoman confirmed the sheriff and the railroad were having discussions, but stressed that no legal agreement had been made.

Those joining Knezovich in the telephone briefing, representing aerospace machinists and the Spokane-based shipping and warehousing provider Inland Empire Distribution Systems, said the measure would put jobs at risk and shifts the city’s focus from promoting business growth.

“If the proposition passes, we’re going to take away city legal resources and funds from the police department, the fire department, filling potholes and maintaining parks,” said Matt Ewers, senior vice president of Inland Empire Distribution Systems.

Supporters of the fines countered that their measure was legally defensible and would not have a negative effect on the local economy. They acknowledged, however, that they faced a difficult political campaign ahead.

“We’re not going to be able to afford a lot of media,” said Jim Lee, an organizer with Safer Spokane, the group that led the signature-gathering drive that put the question on the ballot. “It’s going to be much more of a people-to-people campaign, convincing people that this is a common sense measure.”

The law would fine the owners of rail cars carrying uncovered coal and oil $261 per car, with an exception made for cargo that has been treated to reduce combustibility. Opponents to the measure have received a boost from opinions from city legal advisers, which were dubious the fines would stand up to scrutiny under the Constitution and federal law, which gives federal regulatory authorities control of freight trains crossing state lines.

City Councilman Breean Beggs, who helped draft the language of the ordinance, argues the measure is legally defensible because it tackles a safety issue that has not yet been regulated by federal agencies in order to prevent a fiery downtown derailment.

The Committee to Protect Spokane’s Economy formed earlier this month and has not yet reported any political contributions to the Washington Public Disclosure Commission. Safer Spokane has also not yet reported any political contributions or expenses.

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