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Train Tax? 

Spokane voters will consider fines on oil and coal trains on November's ballot

click to enlarge Breean Beggs
  • Breean Beggs

When City Council President Ben Stuckart spoke Monday in support of putting a proposition on the November ballot to charge railroad companies a $261 per-car fine for sending oil and coal trains through Spokane, he showcased slide after slide of the devastation that oil-train derailments have wrought. They showed scenes of fires, deaths and environmental contamination.

"Lynchburg, Virginia — see the river?" Stuckart said. "The fire chief of Mosier, [Oregon] said, 'I would never support restricting any commodity, until this happened in my town.' All the fire department could do is sit and wait for it go out for 10 hours."

By contrast, Stuckart's rhetoric about the impact of coal trains traveling through Spokane was less dramatic.

"The large chunks of coal... are coming off and falling into people's lawns and into our river," he said.

That's not to say coal trains aren't an issue: coal dust, in high concentrations, can cause respiratory problems. But the question of just how much coal dust the trains send up into the air is still up in the air. A 2013 Multnomah County, Oregon, review of research found "significant gaps in the scientific literature" about the impact and dispersion of coal-train dust. It didn't predict significant increases in derailments or fires.

"They're totally different things," Breean Beggs, the city councilman who wrote the ballot measure, acknowledges about concerns over oil and coal trains. "[Though] they're both trains."

But if you vote in November to fine oil trains, you're also voting to fine coal trains. For now, those like former Councilman Mike Allen, who worry about oil trains but not coal trains, are out of luck. "Well, city council got this half right," he wrote on Facebook.

The proposed ballot measure drew support from environmental groups and the local firefighters union, but opposition from conservatives, business groups and the railroad conductors union. Critics worry about the impact on jobs, and warned of lawsuits over the legal authority of the proposition. Beggs isn't concerned.

"This law is defensible," he told the audience at the meeting. ♦

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