Environment | Law | National

Swinomish Tribe files suit to stop oil trains through reservation

Railroad tracks running through the Swinomish Reservation in Washington. Photo from Swinomish Tribe

The Swinomish Tribe of Washington filed a lawsuit in federal court today in hopes of stopping the transport of crude oil through the reservation.

According to the complaint, BNSF Railway has broken the terms of an agreement with the tribe. To resolve a century of trespass claims, the company promised just one train of 25 cars could pass through the reservation in each direction daily.

But with energy development in the Bakken region on the rise, the tribe recently learned that BNSF is sending as many as six trains with 100 cars through the reservation every week. The lawsuit seeks an end to the practice.

“A deal is a deal,” Chairman Brian Cladoosby said in a press release. “Our signatures were on the agreement with BNSF, so were theirs, and so was the United States. But despite all that, BNSF began running its Bakken oil trains across the reservation without asking, and without even telling us. This was exactly what they did for decades starting in the 1800’s.”

Bakken crude oil is considered dangerous cargo. In late December 2013, a BNSF train derailed and caught fire in North Dakota, causing a temporary evacuation of a town north of the Sisseton Wahpeton Reservation.

Before the incident, the National Transportation Safety Board and the Department of Transportation had issued warnings about the safety of shipping oil via rail. Soon after, the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration concluded that transporting Bakken crude could lead to more accidents.

The tribe's lawsuit seeks an injunction to prevent BNSF from running no more than one 25-car train in each direction and to prevent the transport of Bakken crude through the reservation. It also seeks damages for trespass and breach of contract.

“For thousands of years, we have fought to protect all that is important for those who call the Salish Sea home. We as leaders need to protect our treaty resources, our economies, and the human health of our citizens and neighbors,” said Cladoosby. “We all lose if we give up that which is most precious to us all – our commitment is to do what is right for our children and grandchildren, and protect the land and water upon which their lives will depend.

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Train with oil derails north of Sisseton Wahpeton Reservation (1/3)

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