Safer Spokane's Proposition 2
— which would fine the owners of any train cars lugging high-pressure crude oil or uncovered coal — has struggled to draw high-profile supporters. Other than Breean Beggs, who wrote the initiative, other city councilmembers have been reluctant to jump on board, despite their fears regarding the utter devastation
that an oil-train disaster would inflict upon Spokane.
But last week, Safer Spokane announced they'd won over at least one powerful political group: the Spokane Firefighters Union.
"We want to be able to save everybody from everything," says Randy Marler, president of the Spokane Firefighters Union. "It happens downtown, we’re not going to be able to save everybody. That’s concerning."
An oil tanker derailing downtown might not only result in a massive fireball that could consume nearby buildings, it could send flaming oil sloshing down streets and leaching into the Spokane Valley-Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer, the sole source of water for most people in Spokane County and North Idaho's Kootenai County.
"There's not something that we can do to effectively fight a fire like that," Marler says. "If there’s anything that the industry can do to make it safer, we would support it."
This has had firefighters worried for quite a while.
"No amount of preparation, no level of staffing, no amount of equipment, apparatus or personnel, would keep this from being anything less than catastrophic to our community," firefighter Dave Kovac told the Spokane City Council last year.
Marler says that firefighters' concerns about oil trains have been shared across the state.
"There’s been a statewide push for firefighters, to do what we can to make sure the [oil] trains coming through are treated and have their volatility reduced," he says.
While Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich has argued that trains carrying substances like chlorine present a far greater danger to the Spokane community, Marler argues that any improvement in rail safety is valuable, no matter the substance.
"If there was something that the chlorine industry wasn’t doing and had the knowledge and expertise to make [the chlorine train cars] safer, we'd support too," Marler says.
The dubious legal ground
that the proposition rests on has prevented even people seriously concerned about an oil train disaster, like the Center for Justice's Rick Eichstaedt
, from throwing their support behind the resolution.
But Marler says the legal questions weren't part of the firefighters' discussions about whether to support the ordinance.
"Somebody else decides whether it’s legal or not," Marler says.
Whether it survives in the courts or not, Marler says, it's an opportunity for the city to make a statement: "Let's do everything we can to make things safer."