Washington’s Swinomish sue to halt Bakken oil trains

Many communities fight transport of crude oil through their towns; some find legal footing to succeed.

 

To the Coastal Salish people living on Washington’s Swinomish Reservation, water remains an important aspect of daily life. Their ancestors fished for salmon at the mouths of Northwestern rivers and gathered shellfish on Pacific tidelands; modern Swinomish people still pursue these activities from their small reservation on the Puget Sound. Many fish for their own subsistence, and many work as employees of the Swinomish Fish Company, which serves international markets.

The Swinomish Reservation is surrounded by water. Swinomish Channel and Swinomish Reservation. Photograph courtesy of Joe Mabel.

Even so, for more than 20 years, the Swinomish have consented to strictly regulated use of a railroad that crosses waters on either side of their island reservation. The track, operated by Burlington Northern Santa Fe LLC, crosses a swing bridge over Puget Sound’s Swinomish Channel, passes several Swinomish businesses, and then crosses a trestle over Padilla Bay, originally on its way to Anacortes, where it historically delivered lumber. A legal agreement between the tribe and the company limited the amount of traffic that would cross the reservation and waterways to Anacortes and required the company to inform the tribe about its cargo.

In the 1990s, the last section of railroad to Anacortes was removed, and the tracks ended on March Point, which houses two oil refineries. Burlington Northern fell behind on their annual reports, and the tribe assumed the trains were carrying supplies to the refineries. 

But in 2012, reservation residents began to see 100-car trains—four times as long as the agreed maximum length. Then an Anacortes newspaper reported that the trains were carrying Bakken crude, a volatile oil that has figured in numerous train explosions in recent years, some of them deadly.

Burlington Northern had not informed the tribe that the cars carried this new, dangerous cargo, and ignored tribal requests to desist. So last week, the tribe filed a lawsuit in federal court. The suit asks the court to reinforce the original car limit and to prohibit the transport of Bakken crude via rail across the reservation.

“It’s not a matter of if another train will blow up; it’s a matter of when,” Brian Cladoosby, chairman of the Swinomish tribe, recently told me. “We want to make sure it doesn’t happen in our backyard.”

Police helicopter view of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, the day a Bakken oil train derailed, killing 47 people in 2013. Photograph courtesy of Sûreté du Québec.
But while many Western communities are grasping for protection against dangerous shipments of crude oil, the Swinomish tribe has a unique instrument for getting it done.

The instrument has to do with the way tribal trust lands work. Tribal trust land, unlike much off-reservation land, requires consent from both the federal government and the tribe before utilities and railroad companies can build infrastructure. But for a century, Burlington Northern and its predecessor companies broke this law by maintaining a railway on the Swinomish reservation without consent from either. In the late 1970s, the tribe sued the company for a century of trespass, reaching a settlement in 1991 that gave the company an easement for continued use of the railway, albeit with a few restrictions: No more than one train could cross the reservation per day in each direction, none could have more than 25 cars, and Burlington Northern would have to inform the tribe of the trains’ cargo at least once per year.

Then came the Bakken boom, and with it a dramatic increase in traffic as trains rushed to carry oil from the Bakken to the West Coast, where ports could take the fuel to international markets. After seeing the traffic increase on their reservation, “the tribe had conversations with Burlington Northern,” says Stephen LeCuyer, director of the office of tribal attorney. “But in the meantime the tribe was seeing explosive derailments of Bakken oil trains, and reached the conclusion that they would not consent to an increase of over 25 cars per day.” After the tribe brought their concerns to Burlington Northern, the company said it wanted to negotiate. Meanwhile, the oil trains kept rolling.  That led to last week’s suit.

Burlington Northern has yet to file their case, but in a statement, company spokesperson Gus Melonas argues that it has a legal obligation to carry the oil.  “As a common carrier, we are obligated under federal law to move all regulated products, which ensures the flow of interstate commerce,” he said in a statement.

“The Easement Agreement includes a mechanism to address rail traffic volumes to meet shipper needs, and we have been working with the Swinomish Tribe for several years to resolve this issue.” The mechanism Melonas refers to is a stipulation in the agreement, wherein the tribe agrees not to “arbitrarily withhold permission to increase the number of trains or cars when necessary to meet shipper needs.”

To the tribes, this mechanism is null. Given the dangerous nature of Bakken crude, the tribe is confident it’s not making an arbitrary decision “in any way,” LeCuyer says.

Their complaint was filed with the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington, and was formally served on April 10. Burlington Northern must now file a response within 21 days of the formal complaint. At that point, the court will issue a schedule for hearings, and the case will eventually be decided by U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik.

Jan Hasselman, an attorney with Earthjustice, an environmental law group that has handled many cases related to oil transportation, said the Swinomish argument appears “airtight.”

“BNSF made an agreement with them, and it violated that agreement,” he said. But Hasselman added that the case wouldn’t likely set a precedent for other communities. “Their agreement is pretty unique,” he said. “But this is yet another example of communities all across the country in different ways rising up to the threat of crude oil transportation.”

Last week, the National Transportation Safety Board issued urgent recommendations calling for the improvement of unsafe oil-tank train cars. Politicians like Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, and Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, D, are calling for greater oil train safety.

Earlier this year, Washington’s Quinault tribe was able to slow shipping of crude-by-rail near their reservation by challenging oil terminals that were being built without an environmental impact statement.

Meanwhile, the Swinomish Tribe is also testifying against a Canadian pipeline that would carry crude oil to ports in the Salish Sea, the body of water that encompasses the Strait of Georgia, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and the Puget Sound. Alternative forms of oil transportation, like pipelines and barges, may be safer to human communities, but they would still put fisheries at risk.

“We, of course, always have concern about tankers hitting our reefs,” Cladoosby says. “Thank God that has never happened. We live on an island surrounded by water. We’ve lived here since time immemorial, and the Creator has blessed us with every species of wild salmon. We work very hard to take care of it.”

Kindra McQuillan is an editorial intern with High Country News.