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In Second Attempt At Oil Train Regulation, Spokane City Councilman Targets Rail Car Owners

Emily Schwing
Northwest News Network
File photo. A train carrying crude oil from North Dakota derailed in the Columbia River Gorge near Mosier, Oregon, in June.

A new proposed ballot initiative in Spokane, Washington, could prohibit coal and oil companies from transporting their products through the city by rail. It comes after the city council rolled back a similar effort last month.

This time around, the proposal targets the owners of the rail cars and not the railroad companies tasked with transporting them.

Spokane City Council member Breean Beggs said public testimony that came from the first attempt at a similar ordinance helped him craft the language in his new proposal.

“We also engaged in negotiations with the railroads and they said, ‘you know, we’re just pulling these cars, we don’t own them. So if you want to make these cars safer, why don’t you deal with the producers who own the cars?’” Beggs said.

But railroad companies have also argued federal law trumps local regulation anyway.

Rail cars carrying coal that is covered would be exempt. Petroleum products transported at pressure higher than 8 psi and/or a flashpoint below 73 degrees Fahrenheit would be prohibited from travelling through the city.

Language in the proposal cites information from the North Dakota legislature. It says conditioning oil so that it can meet the requirements from transport would likely cost less than four cents per gallon.

There were a number of questions about the legality of the previous ordinance, but Beggs, who is also an attorney, said he is confident this new version could withstand a legal challenge.

“In this case there very well may be a legal challenge, but when I compare what it would cost to deal with an explosion or derailment in Spokane of an oil train, which is upwards to $750 million to $1 billion, and these very common sense safety regulations would prevent that level of catastrophe, I think it’s a good cost benefit analysis,” Beggs said.

Beggs also added language that cites federal statute and other court cases as part of his effort to answer questions about local jurisdiction and the transport of goods by rail.

In order to make it on the November 2017 ballot, the initiative would need 2,700 signatures from local voters by next July.