Cowlitz County


SEATTLE – Environmental groups say railway company BNSF is allowing coal to fall off uncovered coal trains and into Washington’s waterways, and this week they’re looking to prove it in front of a federal judge in Seattle.

The Puget Soundkeeper, Natural Resource Defense Council and others say BNSF is violating the Clean Water Act because trains on its railway are a “point source” for water pollution. Chris Wilke, executive director of Puget Soundkeeper, said the outcome could lead to stronger regulations nationwide, and noted that companies such as BNSF have the means to change coal transport.

“BNSF railway is realizing billions of dollars in profits just by transporting the coal,” he said. “They don’t own the coal – in a lot of cases they don’t own the cars – but they are making billions in profits transporting this coal in the cheapest way possible without the proper controls on this.”

BNSF said in a news release that their rules for loading coal cars “virtually eliminates” the issue of coal dust. Coal shippers coming mainly from Wyoming’s Powder River Basin to British Columbia spray a surfactant to the top of cars to prevent coal from flying out as well, but Wilke said shippers had to install a “re-spray” station in central Washington last year to ensure that the substance worked on the long haul.

Washington could see more coal passing through the state if a proposed terminal in Longview is approved. The Millennium Bulk Terminal would be the largest coal-export facility in the country, shipping fuel mostly to Asian markets.

According to a draft environmental impact statement from the Department of Ecology, the facility would result in about 16 additional coal trains passing through the Evergreen State per day. Without proper regulation, Wilke said, coal transport has a cost for the public.

“You are externalizing those costs onto the public, either through bad air quality or through pollution to aquatic habitats, which could impact fisheries or the cleanliness of the fish that people catch and eat,” he said. “So, it’s up to the fossil-fuel industry to actually control their discharges.”

The judge has set aside 10 days for the trial, which started Monday.

Featured Photo: BNSF is on trial over transport of coal on its railways in Washington state. (Matthew Nichols/Flickr)