A federal judge’s ruling in favor of the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community gives the tribe a major victory against BNSF Railway in their dispute over oil trains crossing tribal land.
The Swinomish Indian Tribal Community initially filed their lawsuit in March 2015. In September 2015, a federal judge ruled affirming the Native American tribe’s right to sue the railroad for violating the terms of a Right-of-Way easement granted to allow the railroad to cross the reservation.
The Easement Agreement enables BNSF to bring Bakken crude oil to the Tesoro refinery by crossing a portion of the Swinomish Indian Reservation located on Fidalgo Island in Skagit County, Washington.
Under the terms of the 1991 Easement Agreement, BNSF is allowed to run one 25-car train per day in each direction. The tribe sued contending that BNSF was running as many as six 100-car “unit trains” per week.
On Thursday, June 8, U.S. District Judge Robert S. Lasnik granted the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community’s motion for reconsideration.The ruling reverses the court’s prior ruling that the case should be decided under state law, noting that ”the Court incorrectly analyzed the breach of contract and trespass claims as if they arose under state law. Issues pertaining to tribes, including actions for trespass on tribal lands, are the exclusive province of federal law.”
In its decision, the court decided that the tribe’s treaty rights trumped any interstate commerce laws.
“The correct analysis when considering the Tribe’s treaty-based federal common law claim is not whether the requested relief would interfere with rail transportation, but whether Congress intended to repeal the Treaty of Point Elliott when it enacted the ICCTA. The Court finds that it did not,” Judge Lasnik ruled.
The History of the Dispute
Train travel across the tribe’s land has a long contentious history, with the original track having been laid in the late 1800s without consent from the Swinomish or the U.S government. The tracks cross the northern edge of the reservation, and the Swinomish, as the present day political successor-in-interest to certain of the tribes and bands that signed the 1855 Treaty of Point Elliott, first sued the railroad in 1976, alleging a century of trespassing on tribal land. The resulting settlement led to the 1991 Easement Agreement that allowed only the 25-car train limit without the Tribe’s permission.
The Tribe contend in its lawsuit that “BNSF never notified the Tribe that it intended to exceed the limitation of one train of 25 cars or less, nor did it request permission from the Tribe before it began to do so.”
A Deal is a Deal
“A deal is a deal,” said Swinomish Chairman Brian Cladoosby. “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 1800s.”
“We told BNSF to stop, again and again,” said Cladoosby. “We also told BNSF: convince us why we should allow these oil trains to cross the Reservation. And we listened for two years, even while the trains kept rolling. But experiences across the country have now shown us all the dangers of Bakken Crude. It’s unacceptable for BNSF to put our people and our way of life at risk without regard to the agreement we established in good faith.”
Under the terms of the Easement Agreement, the Tribe agreed not to “arbitrarily withhold permission” for BNSF’s request to increase the number of trains or cars.
Is it Arbitrary?
The Tribe contends that its refusal to grant permission is not arbitrary and is “Based on the demonstrated hazards of shipping Bakken Crude by rail, paired with the proximity of the Right-of-Way to the Tribe’s critical economic and environmental resources and facilities — and the substantial numbers of people who use those resources and facilities on a daily basis — the Tribe is justifiably and gravely concerned with BNSF’s shipment of Bakken Crude across the Right-of-Way in a manner and in quantities at odds with the explicit terms of the Easement Agreement.”
The Swinomish are concerned that trains carrying Bakken crude oil run over bridges spanning the Tribe’s fishing grounds in the Swinomish Channel and Padilla Bay. They also noted that the track runs across the “heart of the Tribe’s economic development enterprises,” which includes the Tribe’s Swinomish Casino and Lodge, a Chevron station and convenience store, and an RV Park, as well as a Tribal waste treatment plant.
The Tribe noted that these enterprises are the “primary financial source for funding of the Tribe’s essential governmental functions and programs.”
The 1991 Easement Agreement granted the Right-of-Way for an initial 40-year term, along with two 20-year option periods. The current agreement will expire no later than 2071.
The tribe is seeking a “permanent injunction prohibiting BNSF from (1) running more than one train of twenty-five cars or less in each direction over the Right-of-Way per day and (2) shipping Bakken Crude across the Reservation.”
The Swinomish are also seeking monetary damages for the prior trespasses and breach of contract in an amount to be determined at trial.
Unfortunate Words for BNSF
In its ruling, the court also made clear that the tribe’s claims of a breach of contract were valid, noting that “the Court found that there was no genuine issue of fact regarding the existence of a breach.”
© 2017 David Mazor
Disclosure: David Mazor is a freelance writer focusing on Berkshire Hathaway. The author is long in Berkshire Hathaway, and this article is not a recommendation on whether to buy or sell the stock. The information contained in this article should not be construed as personalized or individualized investment advice. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.