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Ballot Initiative Could Make Oil Trains Illegal In Spokane

Emily Schwing
Northwest News Network
In June, a train carrying volatile Bakken crude oil derailed in Oregon's Columbia River Gorge. The accident has prompted questions about the safety of the shipments in the region ever since.

Spokane’s City Council Monday voted on a November ballot initiative that would make the shipment of oil or coal by rail through the city a civil infraction. If it passes, every rail car carrying oil or uncovered coal will generate a $261 fine.

The ballot initiative is in response to at least a dozen train derailments in the U.S. and Canada over the last six years. Federal law has protected railways from other local regulations, but initiative backers believe trains passing through the city pose specific health and safety hazards that they are allowed to regulate.

In June, a train carrying Bakken shale oil from Canada derailed in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge. At least four of the derailed cars erupted into flames just outside the tiny town of Mosier. The accident damaged infrastructure at the city’s wastewater treatment plant. Spilled oil has since been found in the Columbia River.

Days after the accident, the Spokane City Council passed a resolution calling on state federal regulators to suspend the transport of the highly volatile Bakken Crude oil through the region until authorities could “ensure that such transportation can be done safely.”

Keep Washington Competitive, an organization that represents labor, business, and agriculture opposes the initiative. The group argues that limits on energy commodities could result in arbitrary limits on the shipment of other goods by rail in the region.

At least 15 trains travel through 10 Evergreen state counties each week. In Oregon, three major railroad operators send up to 12 trains through the state each week.

Emergency response officials and experts are opposed to the trains, fearing explosions, fire and hazardous materials spills that could result from a derailment.

According to a resolution calling for the ordinance in Spokane, rail lines run within 500 feet of two hospitals as wells as the financial, government and business center. Trains also cross two major waterways and traverse an aquifer that supplies the bulk of the drinking water to 500,000 people in in three Washington counties and across the border in Idaho.