A federal judge ruled last week that the citizens of Washington state will be able to present testimony about the environmental impact of coal dust from uncovered Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) coal trains on local waterways. The trial is scheduled to begin November 7 in Seattle. This is a win for those that work, live and recreate in the Columbia River, Puget Sound, Spokane River, and other Washington waterways that have been polluted by the dust of passing coal trains for decades.
BNSF officials admitted in testimony before other public agencies that their average rail car loses about 500 pounds of coal dust, which contains mercury, arsenic, uranium, and hundreds of other toxins harmful to fish and human health. That amounts to an average of 60,000 pounds of coal from each 120-car train. A ruling against BNSF could have profound implications for rail transport of coal around the country, from financial penalties to the requirement that coal trains be covered.
The court ruled today that the plaintiffs in the case — Sierra Club, Puget Soundkeeper, Columbia Riverkeeper, Spokane Riverkeeper, RE Sources for Sustainable Communities, MFN member Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and Friends of the Columbia Gorge — have legal standing in the case.
In a ruling that could have broader implications, the Court also found the the trains are “point sources” under the Clean Water Act and that BNSF will be liable for all discharges into waterways that can be demonstrated at trial.
This important decision means citizens will finally get their day in court on the spread of coal from open-top rail cars, which has been happening for decades in Washington and other states throughout the nation. Washington’s coal dust problem only stands to get worse if the proposed Millennium Bulk Terminals coal export facility in Longview is allowed to proceed. The 44-million ton coal export facility, currently under review by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, would add up to eight additional coal trains a day from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming, through the Columbia River Gorge and to southwest Washington.
The plaintiffs look forward to proving their case in court:
“Communities who love and rely on these waterways will be heartened to know that companies like BNSF can’t be allowed to pollute unchecked,” said Cesia Kearns, Deputy Regional Campaign Director for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign. “It’s victory for all these communities to see this harm acknowledged, and we are hopeful that this will lead BNSF to take care of the problem.”
“Coal train pollution threatens our communities and our waterways — the evidence from this lawsuit makes that very clear,” said Ann Russell, Clean Water Program Manager at RE Sources for Sustainable Communities. “We look forward to bringing this Clean Water Act case to court and proving that railroad companies must take responsibility for polluting our water with lead, arsenic and mercury from coal. ”
“This decision affirms the common sense notion that trains can be held liable for dumping coal into our waterways,” said Jerry White, Jr., of Spokane Riverkeeper. “This opens the door for the Court to see the evidence collected across the Northwest of the impacts of these trains on our lakes and rivers.”
Congratulations and ‘thank you’ to the organizations and individuals who have been fighting BNSF to protect our rivers!
To learn more:
Coal Dust Pollution in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, Friends of Columbia Gorge
Jaffe Group Coal Dust Research, University of Washington
Coal Dust Pollution, Dirty White Pants, And Coverups: The Consequences Of Exporting Coal, ThinkProgress