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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Oil, coal train protesters in Spokane file federal lawsuit claiming climate change protections

Nancy Nelson left and Deena Romoff, right, members of the activist group Raging Grannies are arrested after they blocked railroad tracks near 2302 East Trent to protest the movement of oil and coal trains through Spokane on Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2016, in east Spokane, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Self-proclaimed “Raging Grannies” and other protesters who were arrested last year for blocking rail traffic sued the federal government Tuesday, alleging violations of their constitutional right to a livable climate.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Spokane, cites a ruling by Oregon U.S. District Court Judge Ann Aiken in December that government actions damaging the climate are grounds for a legal claim. Lindsey Schromen-Wawrin, a Gonzaga Law School alumnus and contract attorney for the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, is representing the protesters and Gunnar Holmquist, a Spokane physician sponsoring a ballot initiative to ban coal and oil trains through downtown.

Members of the “Raging Grannies” sued the government as individuals, not as part of any particular organization, members clarified Wednesday.

The Spokane City Council was set to ask voters to weigh in on a potential oil and coal train ban through downtown, citing derailments in Mosier, Oregon, and elsewhere as evidence the shipments posed danger to downtown visitors and the Spokane aquifer. The council reversed course, citing legal advisement the local ban would be pre-empted by federal law.

The protesters’ lawsuit asks the courts to declare that federal law, the Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act, unconstitutional, because it prevents local governments from enacting policies to “stop climate change.” Schromen-Wawrin, the attorney, said he didn’t know of any other federal lawsuits seeking to make that argument.

The railroads, including BNSF and Union Pacific, have pushed back on council efforts to ban or require tougher safety regulations for oil and coal train cars traveling through downtown, citing their own safety procedures and the infrequency of derailments based on total rail traffic.

Organizers are gathering signatures to put the issue before Spokane voters this year, in spite of the legal advice offered to the City Council.