Sierra Club sues BNSF over coal dust from trains

Jun 5, 2013

A coalition of environmental groups led by the Sierra Club has filed suit against Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway and five energy companies.

The plaintiffs say coal dust flying out of uncovered train cars is polluting Washington rivers and Puget Sound, in violation of the federal Clean Water Act.

The suit follows a notice of violations sent by the environmental groups to the railway in April. They’ve documented chunks of coal landing in waterways all the way from the Columbia River Gorge to Seattle’s Lake Washington ship canal and up near Bellingham.

And they’re worried as much as five times more coal will spill if proposals for three export terminals in Washington and Oregon get approval. Charlie Tebbut is their attorney.

“With trains losing anywhere from 60,000 to 400,000 pounds or more of coal per train, a significant portion of that coal goes directly into our treasured rivers, streams and oceans.”

He says the Clean Water Act prohibits all discharges of pollutants, unless allowed by a permit, which BNSF doesn’t have.

“It’s time for these companies to comply with the clean water act and stop these illegal discharges,” Tebbut says.

BNSF says the suit has no merit and amounts to a publicity stunt meant to stop the proposed terminals.

“We believe the Sierra Club adamantly opposes coal and will go to any lengths to eliminate it, even at the expense of other exports,” says Railway spokeswoman Suann Lundsberg. 

She says BNSF has been hauling coal safely in Washington for decades. And they’ve been proactive about keeping it that way.

“So in compliance with BNSF rules, exporters have committed to treat all coal shipments with methods that are proven to be effective at preventing coal dust from escaping during transit,” Lundsberg says.

She says they have to shape the coal during loading to make it more stable and then spray it with a surfactant that’s sort of like hairspray. The railway instituted these requirements after identifying coal dust as a safety issue where it’s loaded at the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming.