Bakken oil trains don’t have to explode. But they do.

Big Oil insists Spokane cannot defend itself against their reckless disregard for our safety.

We disagree. Here’s why.



Bakken crude, shipped by rail from the Dakota oil fields, is extraordinarily volatile and explosive. Unlike traditional light crude oil, it is actually more explosive than gasoline. When a train derails, and 16 have derailed in the last few years, the blast zone is a mile wide and the oil fires cannot be extinguished.

  • See map above for potential blast zones in Spokane according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.


When a 100-car Bakken oil train derails the result is catastrophic with inconceivable death and destruction. The worst, so far, was in the village of Lac Megantic, Quebec, in 2013 (see photo above). Forty-seven people were killed, many more were maimed for life, a square mile of their town was destroyed, and the cost to rebuild was $2,700,000,000. That’s 2.7 BILLION dollars of destruction. And all this was in a village of only 6,000 people. Imagine an explosion like this in downtown Spokane.

When a 100-car Bakken oil train derails the result is catastrophic with inconceivable death and destruction…


What makes Bakken crude so explosive is the highly unstable gases that come from fracking. These gases can be removed on site, and saved for practical uses like cooking and heating, but the oil companies refuse even though it only costs 2 to 3 cents a gallon to treat. They do, however, remove these gases when the rail cars reach the coast for shipping overseas. So it’s not safe for oil ships but safe enough for Spokane? That is not acceptable.


Although the solution is simple and cheap, it still costs money and even that minor expense affects their stock performance on Wall Street. To placate their investors, Big Oil shifts all the risk to Spokane and insists we have no legal recourse to stop them. We disagree.


First, under Prop-2, oil cars that roll through Spokane will either have to carry treated oil or be fined at $261 per car, paid by the oil company that owns the car. The railroads will not be affected. Since it costs only a few cents cents per gallon to stabilize, it will be far cheaper to treat the crude—and the oil companies will comply. The notion that they will start using oil trucks instead is both prohibitively expensive and absurdly inefficient. Prop-2 is not intended to stop oil trains from coming through Spokane or even slow them down; it will simply force the car owners to make them safe for rail shipment.

Prop-2 is not intended to stop oil trains from coming through Spokane or even slow them down…

Second, Prop-2 will force coal companies to cover their coal shipments or pay the same fine. Why? Because over time their coal dust builds up in gravel roadbeds, which blocks the drainage, which damages the tracks in ways virtually impossible to detect, which causes a significant increase in derailments—even on tracks that were recently inspected. Congress has been aware of this problem for years and has done nothing to fix it. Their inaction opens a legal way for Spokane to address it.


Yes. The law is clearly in our favor. That doesn’t mean the oil and coal companies will not contest it. They will. They’re already sounding cynical alarm bells it is unconstitutional due to the Interstate Commerce clause. If they followed case law—which clarifies constitutionality—they would know that’s not true. And here’s the acid test the fossil fuel companies have failed: If they actually believed it was unconstitutional, they would have already gone to court to stop Prop-2 from ever getting on the ballot. It’s much cheaper to spend $10,000 in court to nip something in the bud than $150,000 on a disinformation campaign to try and confuse enough voters to prevail. Yet they did not go to court.

  • See “Footnote 1” at bottom of page for detailed legal analysis.

If oil companies actually believed Prop-2 was unconstitutional, they would have already gone to court…

And what about the expense of Spokane defending Prop-2? Spokane is staffed with excellent attorneys who go to court all the time. That’s their job. Defending Prop-2 will not be an undue burden on the city. Rebuilding a mile wide blast zone and attempting to clean an irreversibly contanimated aquifer, however, would be an impossible burden to carry.

Finally, what about lost jobs in Spokane? What jobs are those? The railroad will not be affected. The Bakken crude will be treated in the Dakotas, which will create jobs there. Trains will continue to roll through Spokane. The notion of lost jobs is baseless fear-mongering from the fossil fuel industry.


The oil companies are currently shipping up to three million gallons of incendiary, untreated Bakken crude per train, two to three times per day, every day. This amount is scheduled to increase as fracked wells become more productive. Meanwhile, the coal companies are coating the roadbeds with coal dust that makes the tracks far more likely to fail. Neither will change their behavior unless forced to by law.

Prop-2 is that law.

The fossil fuel industry propaganda insists Prop-2 is unconstitutional but curiously they haven’t gone to court to block it. Instead they are saturating Spokane’s media and social media with cynical personal attacks, smears, disinformation and outright lies. Why? So they’ll win and Spokane will lose. If their deliberately misleading tactics prevail, and they may, Spokane could conceivably lose everything.

It’s your vote. It’s everyone’s safety. Please stand up to their reckless corporate behavior and cynical disregard for our life, property and community—and vote yes on Proposition-2.

Vote YES on Proposition-2!


  • The Constitution gives the authority to Congress to regulate interstate commerce.
  • Congress generally allows the Department of Transportation (DOT) to manage and propose needed laws.
  • However, since DOT was not responding to railway safety in a timely manner, in 1970 Congress passed the Federal Railway Safety Act (FRSA) giving power to the states and localities to pass their own regulations when DOT was not acting.
  • In 2002, the Washington Supreme Court ruled that the FRSA allows cities to enact their own laws for rail safety. (City of Seattle v. Burlington Northern Railroad Company)
  • In 2003, the railroads sued in Federal Court to overturn a California law based on the FRSA and lost. The Ninth Circuit Court ruled that safety is more important than uniform regulations.  (Union Pac. R.R. Co v. Cal. PUC)
  • That ruling stands unchallenged as law.
  • Therefore, Proposition-2 is both legal and defensible.


A few years ago Burlington Northern Railroad went before the U.S Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Surface Transportation Board with evidence that coal dust destabilizes the ballast (roadbed) such that when it gets wet, the dust acts as a lubricant. They also proved coal dust affects roadbed drainage, which is especially dangerous in the spring. Both directly cause train derailments. Based on that evidence, the Board ruled that coal companies must spray a surfactant (coating) on the coal before shipping.

Unfortunately, there are issues with that remedy:

  • The surfactant is only 70% effective at the time it is sprayed onto the coal.
  • The surfactant blows off and/or dissipates during transit.

Consequently, coal trains headed to the coast from the east or midwest must be recoated during transit. And we must hope for the best in Spokane. This  is not acceptable, especially with 100-car oil trains rolling through town 2-3 times every day. Even if Prop-2 passes, an oil spill is still toxic and could profoundly damage our aquifer.

Congress has not acted on any railroad safety concerns for years. Spokane has legal standing to act. It’s time to act.