Groups threaten lawsuit over coal train pollution

Several environmental groups are threatening to sue railroad and coal companies over water pollution from the coal they ship.

The Sierra Club and several local partners sent a notice of intent to sue to BNSF Railway and seven coal companies, saying they are violating the federal Clean Water Act when coal falls off their trains into waterways. The law requires anyone dumping pollutants into United States waters to get a permit to do so.

Among the recipients are Peabody Energy and Cloud Peak Energy, which plan to have their coal shipped from the Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point if it is built.

The notice gives BNSF 60 days to “resolve the problem of coal emissions from its trains” before the groups file a lawsuit in federal court.

Representatives from the groups were not specific at a Tuesday press conference about what kinds of fixes they would like to see, instead calling on the rail company to figure out how to contain their cargo.

“It’s really up to BNSF to fix the problem,” said Cesia Kearns of the Sierra Club.

Peabody’s coal is from Wyoming and Montana’s Powder River Basin.

It breaks apart easily and contains mercury, arsenic, lead and other toxins, said Brett VandenHeuvel, executive director of the Columbia Riverkeeper.

“We’re taking this action today to stop the spilling of illegal pollution into our rivers,” he said.

VandenHeuvel said he and others have seen coal in more than a dozen places along the water in Washington and expects to find more if proposed export terminals in Washington and Oregon are approved.

“It’s shocking what we’re discovering,” he said. “… It’s not just dust; it’s chunks of coal. I’ve picked up chunks of coal the size of my fist.”

Bellingham resident Paul Anderson said he found chunks of coal under the Skagit River railroad bridge last fall when the water was low, as well as near the tracks in Bellingham.

“I hope that these serious violations will send a strong message to the Army Corps of Engineers that more extensive reviews are needed,” he said in the press release.

The Army Corps of Engineers, Whatcom County and the state Department of Ecology are putting together the legally required environmental impact statement for the Gateway Pacific Terminal project.

They are currently deciding what will be studied for that report, and a draft of it is expected to take at least a year to complete.

“BNSF’s rampant coal pollution of our waterways demonstrates the latest in a series of problems with shipping coal through our local communities,” Matt Krogh, North Sound Baykeeper at RE Sources for Sustainable Communities, said in the press release. “Unfortunately, it’s the perfect example of why we need a robust study outlining the consequences to our health, safety, economy, and climate if we’re increasing coal train traffic nearly tenfold through our communities.”

Salmon are particularly sensitive to the toxic compounds found in coal, and these toxins can be transmitted up the food chain, Chris Wilke, executive director of Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, said in the press release.

The groups brought several residents from around Washington to tell stories in the press conference of being “showered” with coal from passing trains.

Loads of coal are sprayed with a surfactant to reduce dust blown off by wind. However, some from the environmental groups questioned its effectiveness and said the surfactant itself might also be harmful or speed pollution, although that’s hard to determine since its chemical makeup is a business secret. BNSF has stood by the spray’s effectiveness and does not plan to cover its cars.

Four coal trains currently come through Washington bound for Canada. If the Gateway Pacific Terminal is built, it could add as many as 18 trains to the tracks through Skagit County — nine full going north and nine empty going south.

Other export terminals have been proposed for Washington and Oregon, combining with Gateway to send about 60 more trains through Washington daily. Gateway is the only one that would increase traffic through Skagit.

BNSF and the companies proposing and advocating terminals have not committed to paying to mitigate the impacts of the projects, instead waiting to see what’s covered in the environmental impact statement. But pollution is already happening and bringing more coal trains through would make it worse, Kearns said.

“These costs should be covered by these companies,” she said, “not American families.”