April 7, 2015 / 10:14 PM / 2 years ago

Native American tribe sues BNSF over Washington oil train traffic

SEATTLE, April 7 (Reuters) - A Native American community in Washington state filed a federal lawsuit on Tuesday against BNSF Railway to prevent trains carrying crude oil from using tracks on reservation land, saying the transport violates a long-standing agreement.

The Swinomish Indian Tribal Community says BNSF has been using tracks that cross reservation land in Skagit County, near the Canadian border, to transport crude oil since at least 2012 without seeking approving of the shipments from tribe officials.

The complaint also alleges that BNSF, a wholly owned subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway Inc, has broken the terms of a 1991 easement agreement which limited the number of rail cars that can use the 130-year-old tracks each day.

The lawsuit comes amid growing concern about the safety of moving crude oil by rail following a series of fiery derailments this year in West Virginia, Illinois and Canada.

"Experiences across the country have now shown us all the dangers of Bakken Crude," Swinomish Indian Tribal Community Chairman Brian Cladoosby said in a statement.

"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," he said.

On Monday, the National Transportation Safety Board issued four urgent recommendations to replace or retrofit rail cars that carry flammable liquids such as crude oil or ethanol, saying a rapid series of changes were needed to ensure public safety.

Canadian and U.S. officials have wrestled with making oil train deliveries safer since 47 people were killed in the 2013 Lac Megantic disaster in Quebec.

The Swinomish Indian Tribal Community said it repeatedly asked BNSF to disclose how much crude was using the tracks, which run across the northern part of the reservation, and to adhere to the 1991 agreement that limited crossings to one 25-car train in each direction daily.

The lawsuit seeks a permanent injunction against BNSF preventing the movement of crude oil on the tracks and limiting the number of trains using the reservation to two per day. The tribe also seeks a judgment of breach of contract and trespass.

Gus Melonas, a spokesman for BNSF, said the company had received the complaint and was reviewing it. (Editing by Daniel Wallis and Eric Walsh)

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