Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Fines for coal, oil trains in downtown Spokane likely headed for ballot amid legal concerns

FILE - Train cars, seen here in October 2014, carry flammable liquids head west through downtown. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

The decision whether to fine the owners of coal and oil trains rumbling through downtown Spokane will likely land in the hands of voters this fall.

The Spokane County Elections Office on Wednesday reported the initiative, which was first floated last summer by the City Council as a way to prevent a fiery derailment damaging the Spokane aquifer, had enough signatures to appear on the November ballot.

Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart, who led the effort to put the question before voters last year before receiving legal advice within City Hall questioning its legality and pulling it from consideration, said he believed his colleagues would authorize its inclusion in this year’s election.

“In my opinion, even if I disagree with something, I’ve always let it go to the voters,” Stuckart said. “I’ve held that position ever since I’ve been on council.”

According to the Spokane city charter, if a measure receives verified signatures from a group equaling greater than 5 percent of the number of votes cast in the previous general election, the City Council must either pass it as is or submit it to voters.

Todd Eklof, sponsor of the initiative that would levy a $261 fine against the owners of cars carrying uncovered coal and untreated oil, said the validation of 3,296 signatures – 710 more than were needed to get the question on the ballot in Spokane – showed the strong support the community had to ensure safety measures were taken to protect downtown and Spokane’s drinking water from a disaster.

“I’m very happy with where we’re at, and I’m incredibly encouraged by the support this has received in Spokane,” he said.

The proposal has been panned by the railroads, pro-business groups in Spokane and Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich as a potentially illegal regulation of commerce that is prohibited by federal law, citing the city’s own legal experts. Michael Cathcart, executive director of the political action committee and nonprofit Better Spokane, said he hoped the City Council would request a review of the measure’s legality by a judge before the November election.

“That could potentially save the taxpayers a significant amount of money, before a lawsuit is filed,” Cathcart said.

Eklof said the initiative includes citations of the federal railway safety law creating exceptions to address “an essentially local safety or security hazard,” does not conflict with other federal laws and “does not unreasonably burden interstate commerce.”

“I just think there hasn’t been enough public discussion of the legality, it’s just people drawing lines in the sand and saying this isn’t going to stand,” Eklof said.

An opinion from the City Council’s policy adviser prepared last summer addressed these exceptions, finding the federal government had established significant safety standards for rail transport of coal and oil and concluding there was “a very small chance” the original proposal would withstand a legal challenge.

Petition gatherers modified their proposal to target the owners of rail cars and strengthen the argument that the initiative addressed a local hazard. It also specifically targeted uncovered coal trains to prevent dust on the tracks and oil that is not treated to reduce combustibility. Opponents say the newer measure is still prohibited under federal law.

Eklof said he didn’t believe a pending and potential negative federal court ruling on another initiative seeking an outright ban on the trains would have an effect on his group’s campaign.

“I think this really is about public safety,” he said. “The environmental stuff aside, this bill is about protecting our community, making it safer by just making some minor adjustments to the transportation of fossil fuels through our community.”