Spokane climate activists sue U.S. government for constitutional violations

These activists are fighting for their “right to a healthy climate” and to ban fossil fuel trains as a violation of that right.


On Tuesday, activists from Spokane, including several who were arrested for blocking fossil fuel trains in the region four months ago, filed suit against the federal government in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Washington.

The lawsuit, known as Holmquist et. al. v. United States, asserts that the federal law preempting city health and safety laws over fossil fuel rail shipments violates residents’ constitutional right to a healthy climate and local self-government.

This is a first-of-its-kind case directly challenging federal preemption as an infringement of constitutional rights when that preemption works to prohibit the passage of health and safety laws at the municipal level.

The lawsuit comes on the heels of a recent federal court decision in Oregon recognizing that people have a fundamental and constitutional “right to a liveable climate” pursuant to the due process clause of the United States Constitution. In that case, Kelsey Cascadia Rose Juliana v. United States, Judge Ann Aiken of the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon wrote, “I have no doubt that the right to a climate system capable of sustaining human life is fundamental to a free and ordered society… to hold otherwise would be to say that the Constitution affords no protection against a government’s knowing decision to poison the air its citizens breathe or the water its citizens drink.”

Plaintiffs in the Spokane lawsuit include Dr. Gunnar Holmquist, the primary sponsor of a City of Spokane citizen-sponsored initiative to ban coal and oil trains due to their impact on climate change. Additional plaintiffs are Rusty Nelson, Nancy Nelson, Margie Heller, Deena Romoff, George Taylor, and G. Maeve Aeolus, each of whom were arrested last August and September in actions to block the movement of fossil fuel trains. The plaintiffs are being represented by Lindsey Schromen-Wawrin, a lawyer with the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund.

“Now is the time to step forward to do everything possible to stem the global crisis of climate change,” said Dr. Holmquist, the lead plaintiff in the litigation. “This lawsuit will inevitably be the first of many which seek to begin to align state and federal laws with the realities of global warming, liberating communities to begin to take the difficult steps necessary for our continued survival on this planet.”

The federal lawsuit coincides with the re-filing of an initiative within the City of Spokane to amend the city’s home rule charter. The initiative would recognize a “right to a healthy climate” and ban fossil fuel trains as a violation of that right. Supporters of the initiative are preparing to collect signatures to qualify for the November 2018 ballot.

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