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Sunday, July 21, 2024

Judge Orders $400 Million Penalty for Rail Company’s Trespassing on Tribal Land

A federal judge has ordered BNSF Railway, one of North America’s largest railroad operators, to pay nearly $400 million for trespassing on Native American land by significantly exceeding the agreed-upon number of train cars carrying crude oil through the Swinomish Reservation. This ruling, filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Seattle, determined that BNSF engaged in “willful, conscious and knowing trespass” by running several 100-car trains carrying crude oil weekly through the Swinomish Reservation, located on Fidalgo Island in Washington State.

According to the court documents, the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community had an agreement with BNSF Railway that allowed for one eastbound and one westbound train, each consisting of no more than 25 cars, to pass through the tribe’s land each day. However, from September 2012 to May 2021, BNSF exceeded this limit, operating at least six 100-car trains in each direction per week. This violation led to a 2015 lawsuit filed by the tribe.

The trains passed through the northern part of the tribe’s land, close to key community establishments including a casino, gas station, convenience store, and R.V. park. The tribe’s lawyers emphasized the dangers of transporting crude oil, noting its history of causing derailments, deadly explosions, environmental spills, and contamination. Despite repeated demands from the tribe to cease its unauthorized use, BNSF continued to operate the excessive number of trains, disregarding the tribe’s protests.

In a trial earlier this month, the court found that BNSF had breached the contractual obligations of its agreement with the Swinomish tribe. Judge Robert S. Lasnik ruled that the rail company should forfeit the net profits gained from its unauthorized use of the tribe’s land. This significant financial penalty underscores the severe nature of the violation and the substantial benefits BNSF reaped by disregarding the agreement.

In response to the ruling, Steve Edwards, chairman of the Swinomish tribe, expressed gratitude for Judge Lasnik’s decision. He highlighted that the hefty sum BNSF was ordered to pay reflects the “enormous wrongful profits that BNSF gained by using the tribe’s land day after day, week after week, year after year over our objections.” Edwards’ statement emphasized the tribe’s relief and satisfaction with the court’s recognition of the severity of BNSF’s transgressions.

BNSF, however, declined to comment on the case in an email on Monday, and the company’s lawyers did not immediately respond to requests for comment. The ruling marks a significant legal victory for the Swinomish tribe, reinforcing the importance of respecting agreements with Native American communities and acknowledging the serious implications of violating such agreements.

This case serves as a stark reminder of the potential consequences for corporations that disregard legally binding agreements with Native American tribes. It underscores the broader issue of corporate accountability and the need for greater respect and adherence to agreements made with indigenous communities. The Swinomish tribe’s victory not only secures a substantial financial settlement but also sets a precedent for other Native American communities seeking justice for similar transgressions.

The case against BNSF Railway illustrates the broader conflicts between corporate interests and the rights of indigenous communities. It raises critical questions about the balance of power, the enforcement of legal agreements, and the protection of Native American lands from unauthorized and potentially harmful corporate activities. As the Swinomish tribe celebrates this legal triumph, it also brings to light the ongoing struggle for Native American communities to protect their land, rights, and sovereignty against powerful corporate entities.

The nearly $400 million penalty imposed on BNSF Railway is a significant milestone in this ongoing struggle, providing a measure of justice for the Swinomish tribe and reinforcing the principle that agreements must be honored and respected. This case will likely resonate throughout the legal and corporate landscapes, serving as a cautionary tale for companies operating on or near Native American lands.

Jonathan James
Jonathan James
I serve as a Senior Executive Journalist of The National Era
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