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Memo To Spokane City Council Says Proposed Oil Train Ballot Initiative Isn't Legal

David Gubler
Wikimedia -
File photo. An initiative proposed for next year's ballot in Spokane, Washington, would restrict coal and oil transport through the city by train.

An initiative proposed for next year’s ballot in Spokane, Washington, would restrict coal and oil transport through the city by train. But now a hearing examiner for the city of Spokane says the proposal cannot be enforced.

According to an eight-page memo to the city council from Hearing Examiner Brian T. McGinn, the proposed law would be preempted by federal law. That’s despite the proposal’s intent “to ensure public safety and prevent environmental damage.”

McGinn cited several cases from various circuit courts all the way to the Supreme Court that show state and local laws that govern the activities and location or that have an economic impact on railroad operations are routinely held invalid and preempted under federal law.

“Federal authority over rail operations cannot be usurped through an exercise of local police powers,” McGinn wrote.

As well, McGinn wrote that “a local government cannot enact an ordinance or regulation that effectively prohibits certain railroad operations” or that “dictates the location of railroad operations.”

The proposed ballot initiative comes after the City Council reversed an attempt this summer to regulate coal and oil shipments through Spokane. It outlined concerns about the proximity of those trains to the city’s schools, hospitals and water resources.

If the initiative were in the form of safety regulations, McGinn said his legal analysis would be “significantly different.”

In the memo, he said he is unable to suggest “how to modify the initiative to bring it into compliance with [federal] law.”

“Minor adjustments,” he wrote, “will not be effective to cure the legal shortcoming.”

Initiative sponsors don’t agree with the analysis and plan to move forward. They would need nearly 3,000 signatures to place the initiative on next year’s ballot.