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Montana tribe questions safety of BNSF shipments, seeks to reinstitute railroad tax


The lingering effects of Sept. 11 are being felt well beyond the citizens of New York City and Washington, D.C. — all the way to a northeastern Montana tribe.
The Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribal Nation Nov. 30 formally petitioned a federal appellate court to reverse a district court's decision that denied the tribe's authority to tax Burlington Northern Santa Fe for freight moving across 80 miles of the Indians' 2.2 million-acre reservation.
Tribal officials believe some of BNSF's cargo — particularly hazardous materials — threaten the population's health and welfare.
"After the incidents of Sept. 11, I think millions of Americans would like to know exactly what kinds of dangerous materials the railroad is transporting and what steps they're taking to ensure that this material doesn't fall into the wrong hands," said Tribal Chairman Arlyn Headdress in a prepared statement.
The tribe in September filed suit against BNSF over a dispute that began in 1987, when the Tribal Nation began imposing a tax on companies using reservation lands.
The case was settled in 1991, after which BNSF began paying the tax up until February 2000, when it filed its own suit seeking to stop the tax. In June of that year, U.S. District Court for the District of Montana ruled in BNSF's favor.
Tribal officials claim they've expressed safety concerns to BNSF management but haven't reached a settlement to their satisfaction.
"More than 600,000 freight cars cross our land each year, many of them carrying hazardous and toxic cargo that could spill in a derailment," said Headdress. "I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that the well-being of our people depends on our ability to react in the proper way should an accident and derailment occur."

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More News from 11/30/2001