Judge orders railway to pay Washington tribe nearly $400 million for trespassing with oil trains

A federal judge has ordered a railway company to pay the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community nearly $400 million for trespassing with oil trains on their reservation in Washington state.

The lawsuit, filed by the Swinomish tribe in 2017, alleged that BNSF Railway had been running oil trains across their reservation without permission, violating their treaty rights and endangering their lands and waters. The tribe argued that the trains posed a significant risk of spills and accidents, putting their community and way of life at risk.

In his ruling, U.S. District Judge Robert J. Bryan agreed with the tribe, stating that BNSF Railway had trespassed on the reservation and violated the tribe’s rights under the Treaty of Point Elliott, which was signed in 1855. The treaty guaranteed the Swinomish tribe the right to fish, hunt, and gather resources on their lands, and the judge found that the oil trains interfered with those rights.

The judge also noted the potential environmental harm posed by the oil trains, citing the risk of spills and accidents that could harm the tribe’s lands and waters. The ruling ordered BNSF Railway to pay $383.8 million in damages to the tribe, as well as to cease running oil trains on their reservation without permission.

The Swinomish tribe hailed the ruling as a victory for tribal sovereignty and environmental protection. In a statement, Swinomish Chairman Brian Cladoosby said, “This decision affirms the rights of the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community and all tribes to protect their lands, waters, and resources from harm. We will continue to stand up for our treaty rights and our way of life.”

BNSF Railway has not yet commented on the ruling, but the company has the option to appeal the decision. However, the judge’s ruling sends a clear message that corporations must respect tribal sovereignty and environmental protections when operating on tribal lands.

The case highlights the ongoing struggle of Native American tribes to protect their lands, waters, and resources from outside threats. It also underscores the importance of upholding treaties and agreements that recognize tribal rights and sovereignty.

As the Swinomish tribe celebrates this legal victory, they hope that it will set a precedent for other tribes fighting to protect their lands and waters from harm. The ruling serves as a reminder that corporations must be held accountable for their actions, especially when they infringe upon the rights and well-being of indigenous communities.

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