Lawsuit looms for BNSF because of coal train impacts on environment

Published on Wed, Apr 3, 2013
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Sierra Club and its partners sent a 60-day notice of intent to sue Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway (BNSF) and several coal companies for violations of the federal Clean Water Act. 

Sierra Club, Puget Soundkeeper, Columbia Riverkeeper, RE Sources for Sustainable Communities and Friends of the Columbia Gorge assert they have found evidence that the companies are responsible for emitting coal into waterways in many locations across Washington.

BNSF Railway, owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, is one of the largest coal transporters in the United States. It is responsible for hauling an average of 480 open-top rail cars carrying coal through Washington daily. 

BNSF has previously testified at hearings before the Surface Transportation Board that rail cars lose an average of 500 pounds of coal dust per trip. Current coal trains are composed of approximately 120 rail cars, resulting in an average of 30 tons of coal being lost per train trip, according to Sierra Club documents.

Longer trains are expected in the future should new export terminals be built.

“BNSF and other railroads haul coal around the U.S. every day. 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,” said Cesia Kearns, campaign representative of Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Exports campaign. “The blame game stops here.”

Local residents and conservation groups are concerned that the problem will worsen if shipping 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.

Coal mined in the Powder River Basin located in Wyoming and Montana breaks apart easily and contains mercury, arsenic, uranium, and hundreds of other heavy metal toxins harmful to fish and human health, the Sierra Club statement said. Under the Clean Water Act, anyone dumping pollutants or fill into U.S. waters must first obtain what is known as a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit or a Section 404 dredge and fill permit.

Chris Wilke, executive director of Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, is concerned about the amount of coal showing up in waterways and the threats the trend poses to aquatic life in the region. “Salmon are hugely important to our region, ecologically, culturally and economically,” Wilke said. “We know salmon are acutely sensitive to the same tsic compounds found in coal and that many of these toxins can be transmitted up the food chain. It’s a very serious issue.”

Paul Anderson, a longtime Bellingham resident and a self-described “dues-paying union member” at Boeing, has long been a critical of plans to export coal through Northwest ports to Asia. “I hope that these serious violations will send a strong message to the Army Corps of Engineers that more expansive reviews are needed,” said Anderson.

Army Corps of Engineers is the agency responsible for conducting an area-wide study of the impacts for all coal export proposals, but no announcement of the study has been made.

BNSF has 60 days to resolve the problem of coal emissions from its trains. If a solution cannot be reached during this time, then the groups will proceed with a lawsuit in federal court.

The notifying organizations are represented by  Charles Tebbutt, Eugene, Andrea Rodgers Harris, Seattle, and Jessica Yarnall Loaris of the Sierra Club Law Program.