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Swinomish Tribe: No More Oil Trains on Our Land

PHOTO: Members of the Swinomish Tribe, seen here at a tribal ceremony, are concerned that long trains of oil tank cars are crossing their reservation every week, a development the Tribe says violates its 1991 easement agreement with a rail company. Photo credit: Leslie Dierauf/U.S. Geological Survey.
PHOTO: Members of the Swinomish Tribe, seen here at a tribal ceremony, are concerned that long trains of oil tank cars are crossing their reservation every week, a development the Tribe says violates its 1991 easement agreement with a rail company. Photo credit: Leslie Dierauf/U.S. Geological Survey.
April 9, 2015

SEATTLE - A Native American tribe says too many trains, some of which carry volatile Bakken crude, are crossing its reservation and it's suing the rail company to stop them.

The Swinomish Indian Tribal Community alleges BNSF Railway is violating an easement agreement made in 1991. The agreement set limits on the numbers and lengths of trains to cross this part of the Puget Sound area, and requires the rail company to inform the Tribe about the types of cargo.

Tribal chairman Brian Cladoosby says getting oil to a coastal refinery seems to have taken precedence over the original deal.

"The last letter we received from them indicated they weren't going to abide by our agreement, and that they had to provide this [crude] to the Tesoro refinery," says Cladoosby. "So, they basically indicated they were going to keep doing what they're doing."

The lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Seattle asks that BNSF stick to the original agreement: one train per day in each direction across the reservation, of no more than 25 cars in length, with the added specification of no Bakken crude on those trains.

Cladoosby says oil trains of more than 100 cars began crossing the reservation in 2012, and the Tribe has been asking about them since then. He says spills or worse aren't risks the Tribe is willing to take.

"The trains run in real close proximity to our economic development area," Cladoosby says. "Where we have our casino, our hotel, our bingo hall, our gas station, our RV park, our sewer treatment plant. So, it's pretty close proximity."

In a report last month, the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission cited 14 instances in which hazardous materials leaked from BNSF rail cars in a recent four-month period, and the commission claims not all were reported promptly.

BNSF said it found inaccuracies in "more than 90 percent of those allegations." The company has ordered 5,000 new and updated oil tank cars.

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - WA