SEATTLE - Several conservation groups on Tuesday announced plans to sue Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway and several top U.S. coal producers, claiming they spill coal into Washington state waterways in violation of federal law.
The Sierra Club and other groups allege the companies discharge coal, coal chunks, coal dust and other pollutants into state waters when Rocky Mountain coal carried in open-rail cars across the state get blown, shaken or fall off.
Many of those rail lines run along rivers, lakes and streams, and the coal and other material end up in those waters, potentially harming aquatic life, ecosystems and people, according to the groups, which include Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, Columbia Riverkeepr, Friends of Columbia Gorge and RE Sources for Sustainable Communities.
On Tuesday, they sent BNSF and Arch Coal, Peabody Energy, Cloud Peak Energy, Ambre Energy and other companies a 60-day notice of intent to sue, a step required before bringing a citizen lawsuit under the federal Clean Water Act.
Responses from BNSF Railway and a Northwest trade group that includes the nation's top coal producers were not immediately available Tuesday.
"Coal is a toxic pollutant," containing mercury, arsenic and other metals, said Brett VandenHeuvel, executive director of the Columbia Riverkeeper, during a call with reporters Tuesday. "So we're taking this action today to stop the spilling of pollution into our rivers."
Coal is currently shipped to British Columbia on rail lines operated by BNSF where it's exported to Asia. Coal is also shipped to the state's only coal-fired power plant in Centralia, owned by TransAlta.
Several top U.S. coal producers are now seeking to ship millions of tons of coal from the Powder River Basin of Montana and Wyoming for export to Asia. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is currently reviewing permits for three proposed shipping terminals, including one at Boardman, Ore., and two in Washington at Longview and Bellingham.
The group says the train and rail cars are point sources of pollution, and that the companies should have gotten a permit under federal law for such discharges. They fear that increased rail traffic, if the proposed port projects are built, will worsen the problem.
Cesia Kearns, a campaign representative with The Sierra Club, says the groups have tested some of the evidence collected in various waterways throughout Washington and are in the process of testing more. She declined immediately to say what those lab results revealed.
Matt Ryan, a windsurfer who lives in Underwood along the Columbia River Gorge, said he has been showered by coal chunks and coal dust when trains roll by. "It seems pretty obvious that it comes off the coal trains. There are no covers on these cars and they're exposed to so much wind for such a long time."
It's unclear what the health or environmental impacts are from exposure to coal dust and contamination. The issue has not been well-studied, said Eric de Place, a policy director with Sightline Institute, a Seattle think-tank, who spoke to reporters on the conference call. "Coal dust contamination and pollution is a classic example of something we don't understand might hurt us," he said.
Dr. Roger McCLellan, a past chairman of the Environmental Protection Agency's clean air scientific advisory committee, said in a statement that "the mere presence of coal by a railroad track or in the water is not a health hazard."
He added: "Coal has been traveling through the Northwest by rail for over 40 years. Claiming that finding a piece of coal on the ground or in the water leads to a health or environment risk violates one of the basic tenets of toxicology."
VandenHeuvel said the intent of the notice to BNSF and coal companies is ultimately to get them "to stop discharging pollutants into the water way."