US rail operator BNSF Railway has been ordered to pay $400m to a Native American tribe after continuously trespassing on its land in Washington with 100-car trains carrying crude oil. 

A federal judge in Seattle ruled that the company’s actions between 2012 and 2021 had violated a 1991 agreement with the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community that had set a limit of no more than 25 cars per day travelling through the reservation. 

Steve Edwards, chairman of the community, said: “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.” 

Edwards also described the ruling as “the only way to deter future wrongdoing” and repeated claims that the tribal community had tried to resolve the issue with BNSF before going to court. 

In court, the rail company had argued that its commitments to shippers under the Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act superseded the agreement with the Swinomish community, but this argument was rejected by the court of appeals in 2020. 

The United States District Court ruling is the latest development in the years-long proceedings between the two parties, which began with the filing of the lawsuit in 2015 before the Court of Appeals rejected BNSF’s argument in 2020. 

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second trial to determine if the company’s trespass was wilful and knowing was conducted in 2023, with the latest ruling determining the exact penalty for the railroad. 

The 1991 easement agreement made between a BNSF predecessor and the Swinomish community was itself brought about after a lawsuit in 1976 which alleged a century of trespassing on the land by the rail company. 

Tensions were also heightened after two BNSF trains derailed on the reservation last year and spilled roughly 11,700 litres of diesel fuel near Padilla Bay. 

While the company refused to comment to Railway Technology, a statement from Edwards said he expected BNSF to appeal the decision to the Ninth Circuit.