Lawsuit filed in Washington state against BNSF over coal dust

The Sierra Club and partners filed suit June 5 against Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway (BNSF) and several coal companies for alleged violations of the federal Clean Water Act.

The Sierra Club, Puget Soundkeeper, Columbia Riverkeeper, RE Sources for Sustainable Communities, and Friends of the Columbia Gorge had sent a 60-day notice in April after collecting evidence demonstrating the companies’ responsibility for emitting coal into waterways in several locations across Washington. Spokane Riverkeeper and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) recently sent a notice letter for these alleged violations, as well.

“BNSF and the other coal shippers had two months to figure out a way to stop polluting our waterways and communities with coal dust but they chose to do nothing to find a solution,” said Cesia Kearns, Senior Campaign Representative of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Exports campaign, in a June 5 statement. “After years of railroad and coal companies playing the coal dust blame game, the last two months proved we can only expect more of the same from these companies. ”

The suit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington in Seattle, where coal dust has been identified in and along multiple waterways. Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn, a co-founder of the Leadership Alliance Against Coal comprised of over 40 Northwest tribal and elected leaders, has opposed plans to develop coal export terminals in Washington and Oregon which would send 18 coal trains per day through Seattle, the club noted.

“We are concerned about the effects of coal dust on our environment and on our waterways,” said McGinn. “It is important that the coal companies comply with our environmental laws.”

BNSF, owned by investor Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, is one of the largest coal transporters in the United States. It is responsible for hauling an average of 4 trains, or 480 open-top rail cars, carrying coal through Washington daily, the club said. BNSF ships nearly 300 million tons of coal through 28 states each year, coming in contact with countless waterways every trip.

According to BNSF, approximately 90% of its annual coal shipments are from coal mines in the Powder River Basin (PRB) in Wyoming and Montana. PRB coal is notoriously dusty, leading the BNSF and the other PRB railroad, the Union Pacific, to impose dust control programs in recent years where chemicals are added to topped-up coal cars to cut down on dust.

Under the Clean Water Act, anyone discharging pollutants into U.S. waters must first obtain a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit. BNSF does not have such a permit, the environmental groups said. Notable is that an NPDES permit normally goes to a point source of pollution, while coal trains emitting dust near waterways would not generally be considered point sources.

The plaintiffs in the June 5 lawsuit said they intend to file a similar action in the federal court in the Eastern District of Washington at a later date.

About Barry Cassell 20414 Articles
Barry Cassell is Chief Analyst for GenerationHub covering coal and emission controls issues, projects and policy. He has covered the coal and power generation industry for more than 24 years, beginning in November 2011 at GenerationHub and prior to that as editor of SNL Energy’s Coal Report. He was formerly with Coal Outlook for 15 years as the publication’s editor and contributing writer, and prior to that he was editor of Coal & Synfuels Technology and associate editor of The Energy Report. He has a bachelor’s degree from Central Michigan University.