Frequently Asked Questions
What does the initiative actually do?
The initiative would impose a civil fine of $261 on the owners of railcars that ship especially flammable oil known as Bakken Oil or uncontained coal that spreads slippery dust on the tracks which can lead to derailment of the oil cars. The railcar owners could avoid liability by simply covering the coal cars and pre-conditioning the oil to remove the highly flammable liquid gas like they do in Texas. The law would not ban oil or coal trains, but would require modest safety measures to substantially reduce the chances of a fiery derailment in downtown Spokane.
How will the initiative make Spokane safer?
Recently, Bakken oil producers in North Dakota have begun shipping uniquely flammable oil by rail through downtown Spokane, close to 17 schools, two major hospitals and the sole source drinking water aquifer for the region. Unlike most oil, this Bakken oil contains liquid gas when it comes out of the ground, which makes it highly explosive and flammable, posing an extraordinary risk to Spokane, especially since the train tracks through downtown Spokane are elevated. In other regions with liquid gas in the oil, the producers do some light refining, known as conditioning, to make the oil safe before shipping. This costs from 2-4 cents a gallon, or even less if the liquid gas is used in place to generate electricity. In 2015 Spokane saw an average of 16 large oil trains a week, but the Department of Ecology estimates it could grow to 137 trains a week by 2020. Making matters worse, Spokane also sees several uncovered coal trains a day, which leave a trail of slippery dust on the tracks, thus increasing the chances of train derailments. By covering up the coal and reducing the flammability of the oil, both products could safely be shipped through the high density population of Spokane without risking a fireball in downtown Spokane and the destruction of its sole source of drinking water.
Can local government pass safety regulations for railcars?
Yes, Congress passed a special law called the Federal Railway Safety Act at 49 U.S.C. § 20101 to empower governments in the states to pass stronger safety laws than federal regulations for local hazards. Congress empowered Spokane to pass local safety measures until the Secretary of Transportation passes comprehensive safety regulations to address the unique local hazards posed by highly flammable Bakken oil cars and slippery coal dust emitted by uncovered rail cars traveling through downtown Spokane on elevated tracks over the sole source drinking water aquifer.
What do the courts say?
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in 2003 approved the federal law that allows local safety railway regulations that are more stringent than federal regulations in the case of Union Pacific Railway Co. v. California Public Utilities Commission, 341 F.3d 851. This remains the law in Washington State, which is part of the 9th Circuit. In fact the Court approved the same type of civil fines proposed in Spokane’s rail safety initiative.
Will this initiative hurt railroads?
This safety law won’t hurt railroad companies or take away jobs. It actually helps railroads keep their workers safer and minimizes their financial liability for a catastrophic oil spill. We modified the law to protect railroads and place any burden on the producers of the hazards after the railroads explained that they have no legal ability to refuse to transport dangerous oil and coal cars.
How many signatures are needed to give Spokane voters a choice on safety?
The Spokane Municipal code requires 2,585 valid signatures to place a citizen’s initiative on the municipal election ballot in November of 2017. This represents 5% of the voters in last municipal election (51,704). Safer Spokane’s goal is to get thousands of additional signatures so that we can send a strong message to government leaders that voters insist on a downtown that is safe from oil train disasters.