Enviro groups sue BNSF over coal dust from trains

Spokane Riverkeeper and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) on July 24 joined the Sierra Club and its partners in filing a complaint against the BNSF Railway in the U.S District Court for the Eastern District of Washington.

The suit alleges violations of the Clean Water Act in the eastern part of the state. An earlier federal lawsuit, filed by the same groups in western Washington for alleged violations in the western part of the state, is also underway.

“We have found coal in the Spokane River and its tributary Hangman Creek. That is toxic pollution in our waterways, and that is a major concern to Spokane Riverkeeper and all of those who have a right to a swimmable and fishable Spokane River,” said Bart Mihailovich, director of Spokane Riverkeeper.

According to BNSF testimony at hearings before the U.S. Surface Transportation Board, each rail car loses an average of 500–3,500 pounds of coal dust, the groups said. Coal trains are composed of about 120 rail cars, resulting in an average of 60,000–420,000 lbs. of coal lost per train each trip, they added. An increase in rail traffic and longer trains are expected in the future should new coal export terminals be built in Washington and Oregon, said the groups, which are fighting those terminals in the permitting process.

If ports are developed, the groups said Spokane would be the “choke point” for all of the predicted 42 trains heading to and from the three proposed coal export facilities in Washington and Oregon each day. 

In this filing, the defendant groups have been narrowed to focus on BNSF while the coal industry. The original Clean Water Act suit was filed in Washington’s Western District on June 5 by The Sierra Club, Puget Soundkeeper, Columbia Riverkeeper, RE Sources for Sustainable Communities, and Friends of the Columbia Gorge. With the addition of Spokane Riverkeeper and NRDC, the groups point to what they call a clear pattern of coal dust water pollution in all corners of the state of Washington.

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.