SEATTLE (NEWSnet/AP) — BNSF Railway must pay nearly $400 million to a Native American tribe in Washington state, a federal judge ordered Monday.

U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik ordered the payment after finding that the company intentionally trespassed when it repeatedly ran 100-car trains carrying crude oil across the Swinomish Tribe’s reservation – in violation of a 1991 easement that allows trains to carry no more than 25 cars per day.

The judge held a trial earlier this month to determine how much in profits BNSF made through the violations from 2012 to 2021.

“We know that this is a large amount of money. But that just 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,” Steve Edwards, chairman of the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, said in a statement.

“When there are these kinds of profits to be gained, the only way to deter future wrongdoing is to do exactly what the Court did today — make the trespasser give up the money it gained by trespassing.”

The company based in Fort Worth, Texas, said in an email it had no comment.

The tribe, which has about 1,400 members, sued in 2015 after BNSF dramatically increased, without the tribe’s consent, the number of cars it was running across the reservation so that it could ship crude oil from the Bakken Formation in and around North Dakota to a nearby refinery.

 

The route crosses sensitive marine ecosystems along the coast, over water that connects with the Salish Sea, where the tribe has treaty-protected rights to fish.

Bakken oil is easier to refine into the fuels sold at the gas pump and ignites more easily. After train cars carrying Bakken crude oil exploded in Alabama, North Dakota and Quebec, a federal agency warned in 2014 that the oil has a higher degree of volatility than other crudes in the U.S.

Last year, two BNSF engines derailed on Swinomish land, leaking an estimated 3,100 gallons of diesel fuel near Padilla Bay.

The tribe pointed out that a corporate predecessor of BNSF laid the tracks in the late 19th century over its objections. The tribe sued in the 1970s, alleging decades of trespassing, and only in 1991 was that litigation settled, when the tribe granted an easement allowing limited use of the tracks.

In reality, the judge wrote, BNSF made far more than $32 million in post-tax profits, but adding all of that up would have added hundreds of millions more to what was already a large judgment against the railway.

The tribe said it expects BNSF to appeal the ruling.

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