Spokane voters soon will be confronted with a ballot measure that if approved, would direct the city to restrict oil and coal shipments by rail through the city of Spokane, putting the city in the center of a costly legal battle that it can’t win.
Voters should reject Proposition 2 and help the city to avoid placing restrictions that are, according to the city’s own legal analysis, beyond its authority.
The measure would require oil companies to remove most of the volatile natural gas components from Bakken crude before it enters Spokane. It also would require coal producers to put covers over coal cars.
The measure’s sponsor, Safer Spokane, contends the restrictions on oil shipments by rail through Spokane would reduce the risk of catastrophic tanker-car explosion. The coal restriction would require coal producers to contain coal dust.
The measure would make it a civil infraction subject to a $261-per-car fine for rail car owners to ship uncontained coal and highly volatile oil through the city of Spokane.
Save Spokane contends that the Prop 2 restrictions aren’t directed at the railroad, but would be the responsibility of oil and coal producers who own the rail cars. The measure, however, would apply only to oil and coal shipped by rail through Spokane, making that argument a difficult sell.
The Committee to Protect Spokane’s Economy, a coalition of Spokane-area business and labor groups formed to defeat Prop 2, contends the measure, if approved, would be the equivalent of a major tax on fuel.
If voters were to approve such a measure, it would taint the business environment and make Spokane business less competitive in the state and around the country, the committee contends.
Prop 2 also would ignite a legal confrontation that would divert the city’s focus from other priorities, including fixing streets and increasing police protection.
BNSF estimated last year that it moves one to three 90- to 110-car oil trains and one or two 100- to 125-car coal trains through Spokane daily, and the railroad said that volume hasn’t changed much in recent years.
In the unlikely event that Prop 2 were to be approved and then upheld, it would likely shift oil and coal to more costly and less environmentally friendly modes of transportation, such as trucking over highways, the Committee to Protect Spokane’s Economy contends.
Federal law already dictates that a municipality is the wrong venue in which to take on interstate railroad transportation. And shifting shipments from one mode of transportation to another would be ineffective as a safety tool. So let’s call Prop 2 what it is: a protest against fossil fuels.
Public safety and the protection of our precious aquifer and Spokane River along the railroad lines should never be minimized, but rather than steam down the wrong track, a better use of the city’s limited resources would be to continue to work with railroads to maintain and improve safety measures both there and through the federal agencies that oversee them.
If only to preserve city resources for more effective uses, voters should reject Prop 2.