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Spokane Voters Direct Their Attention to Proposition 2

Montana Environmental Information Center

***Note: Burlington Northern, B-N-S-F, is an underwriter of Spokane Public Radio programming.***

The prospect of a catastrophic accident is driving the sponsors of Proposition 2. That’s the ballot measure that would fine the owners of railroad cars who ship uncovered loads of coal or certain types of petroleum on rail lines within the city of Spokane. Supporters and opponents generally agree about the need to protect the region from the effects of a destructive rail-related incident. But they disagree about whether this ballot measure is the right way to do it.

Proposition 2 seeks to require oil companies to reduce the volatility of oil that is shipped by rail that would pass through Spokane. The concern centers on what is known as “Bakken crude,” which comes from the Bakken oil fields of Wyoming and the Dakotas. It also requires that coal-laden rail cars be fully covered to prevent coal dust from blowing off.

Jim Lee, who supports Prop 2, says the Bakken oil, which was responsible for a deadly accident in Quebec that killed 42 people and destroyed 30 buildings, is extremely volatile because it carries a high percentage of the gases butane and methane.

“There’s a standard measurement of volatility for petroleum products called the Reid Vapor Pressure Index, and gasoline is sort of a benchmark. It’s a nine, and west Texas sweet crude is a three, but Bakken crude oil ranges from eight to 16. Some samples from the big explosions put it at the 13 -14 range, which [is] 50% more explosive than gasoline," he said.

The measure calls for oil companies to take steps to remove the amount of volatile gases in the oil until the oil registers as an eight on the index, before it can be shipped through Spokane. If that doesn't happen, the city would be able to impose a surcharge on every tank car that comes through town.

Michael Cathcart with the group Committee to Protect Spokane’s Economy opposes Proposition 2. He says it’s debatable whether Bakken crude is more dangerous than other types of oil.

“The argument that it needs to be reduced to an eight (on the pressure index) doesn’t make a lot of sense. The administration under Obama and previous administrations have agreed that that's not the best way to measure volatility," Cathcart said. "In fact there is no best single way to measure volatility.”

Spokane Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer agrees there is some debate on use of the Reid Vapor Pressure Index, but says the scale is a measure his department feels is generally accurate.

"We feel pretty confident that the science behind RVP is accepted," Schaeffer said. "Volatility of Bakken crude is dependent on several factors, and some of the things we look at is the amount of propane or butane added to crude oil to make it more volatile.”

Besides that issue, there is the question of whether a move to regulate oil transported by rail is even legal for a city like Spokane to do.

Michael Cathcart says several legal experts feel the initiative would be on very shaky legal ground,

“You’ve got the hearing examiner for the city of Spokane, who by council ordinance a couple years ago, was mandated to look at these issues and comment on their legality and constitutionality," he said. "He came back and said this is not legal. It does not meet the standards for a legal ballot measure."

Spokane City Council member and attorney Breann Beggs, who acted as a consultant for those who wrote the measure, disagrees,

“Congress passed a law that says local jurisdictions can pass safety laws on trains if it’s a unique danger and not too burdensome. And the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that law," Beggs said. "So the thing that’s in front of voters is simply what Congress wanted to happen and the voters get to decide.”

But some fear just the cost of a court battle is enough of a reason not to support the measure. Andy Dunau is challenging Beggs for his city council seat.

“If the initiative is passed by the voters, it will put the city in serious litigation, a very expensive hundreds of thousands of dollars situation, and we are likely to lose,” Dunau predicted.

But proponent Jim Lee says some legal experts have stepped forward with offers to help with any potential litigation.

“There’s going to be considerable pro bono free legal and technical advice available," he said. "We have people that are willing to provide support to the city attorney's office.”

Some question what the ordinance is actually trying to do. Spokane County Sheriff  Ozzie Knezovich says he gets the impression the proposition is more about dealing with global warming issues by trying to limit coal and oil transportation, than it is about safety.

“I can tell you there are much more hazardous things that come across that rail," Knezovich said. "If this were really about safety, it would be about everything. At least we can control a big fire. Chlorine, you can’t control where that’s going."

Jim Lee says the ordinance did not mention chlorine because the actual number of oil cars dwarfs the small number of chlorine cars that pass through Spokane, and there is no way to reduce the threat of the chlorine contents, as there is in reducing the volatility of the Bakken crude.

The proposition also requires shippers to make sure coal cars are covered, to prevent coal dust from getting onto the tracks. BNSF has discovered that the dust, when mixed with water from rain, can cause problems with the tracks and could cause derailments. The company now is requiring the coal shippers to spray a sticky liquid, known as a surfactant, to cover loads, but Proposition 2 supporters say those aren't completely effective and want to require full coverage.

Proposition 2 opponents say they fear the ordinance would have a direct impact on the 500 BNSF employees in Spokane County, as well as on businesses that rely on shipping by rail, such as local farmers and manufacturers.

The proponents argue that the measure targets the oil and coal companies, which have few if any workers in Spokane. Jim Lee said one railroad official told him they might have to lay off two or three track inspectors if they stopped shipping oil or coal altogether.

Ballots are being mailed out to Spokane voters this week.

Steve was part of the Spokane Public Radio family for many years before he came on air in 1999. His wife, Laurie, produced Radio Ethiopia in the late 1980s through the '90s, and Steve used to “lurk in the shadowy world” of Weekend SPR. Steve has done various on air shifts at the station, including nearly 15 years as the local Morning Edition host. Currently, he is the voice of local weather and news during All Things Considerd, writing, editing, producing and/or delivering newscasts and features for both KPBX and KSFC. Aside from SPR, Steve ,who lives in the country, enjoys gardening, chickens, playing and listening to music, astronomy, photography, sports cars and camping.