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A judge has ruled that a railway must pay a Washington tribe almost $400 million for trespassing with oil trains

A derailed BNSF train on the Swinomish tribal (Via Washington Department of Ecology)

A federal judge has ordered BNSF Railway to pay nearly $400 million to a Native American tribe in Washington state. The ruling came after the judge found that the railway knowingly trespassed by regularly running 100-car crude oil trains across the tribe’s reservation.

Last year, U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik determined that BNSF violated a 1991 easement agreement with the Swinomish Tribe, which permitted a maximum of 25 cars per day. A recent trial assessed the railway’s profits from trespassing between 2012 and 2021 and mandated restitution.

Steve Edwards, chairman of the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, emphasized the significance of the ruling in deterring future misconduct, stating, “The substantial monetary award reflects the significant profits BNSF gained through repeated trespassing on our land.”

A Norfolk Southern train (Tom Brennan/Getty Images)

BNSF, headquartered in Fort Worth, Texas, declined to comment on the ruling.

The tribe, comprising approximately 1,400 members, filed the lawsuit in 2015 after BNSF unilaterally increased the number of oil train cars crossing their land to transport crude oil from the Bakken Formation near North Dakota to a nearby refinery. This route traverses sensitive marine ecosystems and waterways connected to the Salish Sea, where the tribe holds treaty-protected fishing rights.

Bakken crude oil, known for its ease of refining and higher volatility compared to other U.S. crudes, prompted safety concerns after several train explosions in Alabama, North Dakota, and Quebec in recent years.

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