Environmentalists signal they’ll sue BNSF over coal dust

The Sierra Club and four other environmental groups Tuesday said they intend to file a federal lawsuit to force BNSF Railway and six coal companies to better contain the coal being shipped in open-topped trains.

By Hal Bernton

The Sierra Club and four other environmental groups Tuesday said they intend to file a federal lawsuit to force BNSF Railway and six coal companies to better contain the coal being shipped in open-topped train cars.

In a legal notice sent to the companies, the environmental groups contend that the trains are spewing coal dust and chunks of debris into the Columbia River, the Lake Washington Ship Canal and other Northwest waterways in violation of the federal Clean Water Act.

The legal challenge comes as environmental groups are campaigning against proposals to build new coal-export terminals in Washington and Oregon that would greatly increase the amount of coal trains moving through the Northwest.

“This action today seeks to stop illegal pollution and keep our river free of dirty coal,” said Brett VandenHeuvel, executive director of the Columbia Riverkeeper. “The threat of coal export makes this lawsuit even timelier.”

Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, Friends of the Columbia Gorge and RE Sources for Sustainable Communities also signed on to the intent-to-sue letter.

In a statement released Tuesday, BNSF said that the railroad has ”safely hauled coal in Washington for decades. Yet despite the movement of so much coal over such a long period of time, we were not aware of a single coal dust complaint lodged with a state agency in the Northwest or with the railroad until the recent interest in coal export terminals.”

“This is nothing more than the threat of a nuisance lawsuit without merit, that is part of an ongoing campaign to designed to create headlines to influence the review process for proposed export terminals,” the statement said.

In Washington state, major new export terminals are proposed for Longview and Cherry Point near Bellingham to send Montana and Wyoming coal to Asian markets. Some coal already is being shipped through Washington for export from British Columbia, and some is shipped to coal-fired plant near Centralia.

That legal notice was accompanied by a listing of more than 20 sites in Washington where coal has spilled since the beginning of 2011.

The document also includes photographs that depict coal dust blowing off a train as it passes along the Columbia River near Horsethief Lake. They also show what appear to be nuggets or chunks of coal at other locations, including near the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks in Seattle.

In a teleconference with reporters, several Washington residents spoke about their experiences with coal from the trains. Don McDermott, of Dallesport, Klickitat County, says that coal dust has blown off the trains and settled on his grapevines that grow beside the railroad track in a fish pond.

“My primary concern is that there is trespass on my property,” McDermott said. “The railroads need to contain their loads. The shippers need to contain their loads.”

The legal notice by environmental groups cited industry studies that indicated from 250 to 700 pounds of coal were lost from each rail car during transport.

Courtney Wallace, the BNSF spokeswoman, said that past studies were rough estimates, and indicated the coal losses fluctuated, primarily while the trains were within the Powder River Basin in southeast Montana and northeast Wyoming.

She said the studies were done before 2011, when new regulations to reduce coal dust were put in place.

Wallace says the new coal-loading rules require shippers to take added measures to address coal loss, including putting chemicals known as “topper agents” on the coal that reduce most of the coal-dust loss.

The chemicals also have stirred some concern.

In a Jan. 22 letter to agencies that will prepare the environmental-impact statement for the proposed Cherry Point terminal, the Washington Department of Natural Resources notes that one of these chemicals used in cleaning up the 2010 Gulf Oil spill has “been implicated in subsequent fish and shellfish deformities.”