Environmentalists to sue BNSF over coal dust

THE Sierra Club and four other environmentalist groups have issued a 60-day intent to sue coal rail shipper Burlington Northern Santa Fe and half a dozen coal operators for coal-dust related violations of the Clean Water Act.
Environmentalists to sue BNSF over coal dust Environmentalists to sue BNSF over coal dust Environmentalists to sue BNSF over coal dust Environmentalists to sue BNSF over coal dust Environmentalists to sue BNSF over coal dust

Courtesy Burlington Northern Santa Fe.

Donna Schmidt

Sierra Club officials joined Puget Soundkeeper, Columbia Riverkeeper, RE Sources for Sustainable Communities and Friends of the Columbia Gorge in the planned action, claiming to have disovered evidence that the companies were responsible for emitting coal into waterways in many locations across the state of Washington.

In the letter from attorney firm Charles Tebbutt it named BNSF as well as Peabody Energy, Global Mining Holding, Cloud Peak Energy, Arch Coal, FirstEnergy, Ambre Energy and TransAlta USA.

“BNSF and other railroads haul coal around the US every day,” the groups said.

“Coal shippers and railroads know that coal pollution of our waterways is a serious problem and yet for years we’ve watched them point the finger about who pays to resolve the issue.

“The blame game stops here.”

The Sierra Club said it used BNSF’s own figures to determine that four coal trains travelled daily through Washington heading to Canada or to the state’s last remaining coal plant and during that transport the trains lost about 120 tons of coal dust per day.

“Local residents and conservation groups are concerned that the problem will only worsen if coal companies receive approval to move forward with their hotly contested plan to develop five coal export sites in Washington and Oregon, which could send an additional 60 trains through Washington daily,” it said.

The coal aboard the trains comes primarily from Powder River Basin mines and the groups argue that coal is easily breakable, which then exposes mercury, arsenic, uranium and other toxins harmful to the health of humans and fish.

According to the outlines of the Clean Water Act, a national pollutant discharge elimination system permit, or a Section 404 dredge and fill permit, is required to dump pollutants or fill into US waters.

The groups said in the letter that the coal dust pollution threatened the Columbia River Gorge national scenic area, a region shared by Washington and Oregon.

Despite being designated a national scenic area by Congress in 1986, the groups said coal trains had polluted land and waterways along the 85 miles of train tracks on its Washington side.

“The Columbia River Gorge is a national scenic treasure but the railroad is treating it like a dumping ground for coal,” Friends of the Columbia Gorge conservation director Michael Lang said.

“Based on BNSF’s reports, each coal train is dumping up to 10,000 pounds of coal into the Columbia River Gorge.

“This is unacceptable and illegal … if coal export proposals are approved, coal pollution from 30 full coal trains per day would destroy everything Congress and the states of Oregon and Washington have worked so hard to protect in the Columbia River Gorge.”

BNSF has 60 days to resolve the coal emissions problem before the environmentalists proceed with their federal lawsuit.

None of the named coal companies have issued public statements on the potential litigation, though BNSF confirmed late Tuesday that it had safely hauled coal in the state 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,” BSNF officials said.

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

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