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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Federal judge tosses suit by Raging Grannies seeking to ban coal and oil trains through Spokane

Deena Romoff, a member of the activist group Raging Grannies, is arrested  in August 2016 after she and two others blocked railroad tracks near 2302 East Trent Avenue to protest the movement of oil and coal trains through Spokane. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

The Raging Grannies’ attempts to stop coal and oil trains through Spokane has been derailed again.

A federal judge on Monday issued his written opinion dismissing a federal lawsuit that was attempting to overturn a federal law, which the group of citizens has argued gets in the way of local governments that want to institute laws to address concerns over global warming and ensuring the rights of citizens to have a livable climate.

The lawsuit brought by the Raging Grannies and others was filed after the group attempted through the initiative process to ban the trains.

But U.S. District Court Judge Tom Rice found a laundry list of reasons to dismiss the suit that challenged the primacy of the Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act of 1995.

“First, of special import here, the federal law does not prohibit the passing of local laws” Rice wrote. “Rather, it may only pre-empt certain laws’ application.”

Since the issue had no basis in law, it would have required Rice to issue an advisory opinion.

“Accordingly, deciding the case now is not necessary and would not cause any significant hardship on” the Raging Grannies, Rice wrote. “Further, Plaintiffs could have attempted to circumvent the City Council by garnering support from five percent of the electorate, which would have placed the measure on the ballot regardless of any legal opinion.

“This seriously undermines any claim that ICCTA is preventing the initiative from passing, as opposed to the Plaintiffs’ lack of effort,” he continued.

After failed attempts to get the issue before voters, the controversy culminated with the arrests of three women, all grandmothers, on Aug. 31, 2016. They were among about 20 protesters who blocked rail lines between Trent Avenue and Napa Street.

“We were willing to be arrested to stop climate change,” Nancy Nelson, who dressed in a blue floral dress with a matching hat, told The Spokesman-Review at the time. “With the oil and coal trains coming right through our city, this is a very serious issue, which we have to address.”

She and her husband, Lewis “Rusty” Nelson, joined the suit with Dr. Gunnar Holmquist, George Taylor, Deena Romoff, Margie Heller and G. Maeve Aeolus. They were represented by Lindsey Schromen-Wawrin of Port Angeles, Washington.

“The issue right now is that federal law is purporting to pre-empt any local laws from doing what people in Spokane need to do, which is protect themselves from this risk,” Schromen-Wawrin said. “When federal law is putting on a ceiling preventing us from protecting ourselves … that goes against the purpose of government.”

The group tried two initiatives in 2016 that would have banned oil and coal trains through Spokane to promote a livable climate. After the City Council refused to put them on the ballot, Councilman Breean Beggs put forward a resolution seeking a special election to do the same thing. Though it initially passed, Council President Ben Stuckart passed a later resolution, citing federal pre-emption concerns, that pulled the issue from the ballot.

Despite those failures, Rice noted that the Raging Grannies continue to have other avenues to attain what they seek.

The protesters “are not precluded from influencing state and federal legislation, which are likely the best avenues where any concern for the climate can be addressed on a state or national scale,” he wrote.

But Schromen-Wawrin said federal lawmakers continually pass laws that curtail efforts on the local or state level to “protect our health and safety.” The group has 60 days to appeal Rice’s ruling, but no decision had been made by Monday.

“Hopefully the courts will be ready to side with the people at some point,” Schromen-Wawrin said, “and give the people the power to protect themselves from coal and oil trains.”