BNSF Railway Co. v. Friends of the Columbia River Gorge, No. 20-35205 (9th Cir. 2021)Annotate this Case
BNSF Railway sought a declaration that the Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act of 1995 (ICCTA) preempts Clark County, Washington’s permitting process. Clark County asserted that BNSF needed to obtain a permit for a project to upgrade an existing track and construct a second track in the Columbia River Gorge.
The Ninth Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of BNSF. Under the ICCTA, the Surface Transportation Board has exclusive jurisdiction over rail carriers and track construction. If an apparent conflict exists between the ICCTA and a federal statute, then the courts must strive to harmonize the two laws, giving effect to both if possible. The court rejected an argument that the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Act is such a federal statute. The Gorge Act does not establish national environmental standards but provides a framework for a commission of state-appointed officials to adopt a management plan and implement it through county land use ordinances. The Columbia River Gorge Commission retains final say over the approval and enforcement of the management plan and local county ordinances; enforcement actions may be brought in state court. The Gorge Act is not comparable to federal environmental laws and nothing in the Gorge Act indicates that the local ordinances otherwise have the force and effect of federal law.