STB rejects most shipper complaints over BNSF coal dust program

The U.S. Surface Transportation Board, in a decision issued Dec. 13, rejected complaints from coal shippers about a BNSF Railway tariff that pays for the cost of putting coal dust suppressants on coal loaded in railcars.

The board had started this proceeding to give coal shippers the opportunity to challenge the “safe harbor” provision of a tariff change by the BNSF which requires coal shippers to reduce the amount of coal dust lost from railcars during transit from mines in the Powder River Basin. PRB coal is especially dusty and that dust can cause train derailments when it accumulates over time along tracks.

The challenged BNSF safe harbor provision states that shippers will be in full compliance with coal loading requirements if they apply one of BNSF’s five approved suppression methods to their railcars after loading them under a profiling requirement. Alternatively, shippers may propose equally effective coal suppression methods for BNSF’s approval.

“The Board finds the coal shippers challenging the safe harbor have not shown that the coal dust suppression methods set forth in the tariff are unreasonable,” said the ruling, which is dated Dec. 11 and came out on Dec. 13. “However, the Board finds unenforceable one provision regarding shipper liability for adverse impacts from any approved suppression methods because the language is overly broad and ambiguous.”

The board found that the liability provision is an unreasonable practice and must be removed from the tariff.

Parties to this proceeding included Arkansas Electric Cooperative, the National Coal Transportation Association, Union Electric d/b/a Ameren Missouri and the Union Pacific Railroad, which is the other railroad that originates PRB coal.

The board in part found that the costs of this program to shippers are not unreasonable. “We understand that shippers are concerned about BNSF’s incentives to consider the costs of compliance, but…we believe that the cost of spraying these selected topper agents is not unreasonable because the measure is designed to promote reliable rail transportation services. Further, BNSF does have an incentive to consider compliance cost given the competitive environment PRB coal faces. We also explained that under the terms of the tariff, BNSF must give equally effective, but less expensive, alternatives proposed by a particular coal shipper fair consideration.”

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.