Environmentalists Announce Water Pollution Lawsuit Over Escaped Coal

April 2, 2013 | KUOW
Ashley Ahearn

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  • Laura James pulls a piece of black porous rock from the water beneath the railroad bridge in Ballard in Seattle. credit: Lamont Granquist
Laura James pulls a piece of black porous rock from the water beneath the railroad bridge in Ballard in Seattle. | credit: Lamont Granquist | rollover image for more

Environmental groups have collected samples of black rock collected in waterbodies along train tracks in the Northwest and found that some of that rock is coal.

The Sierra Club, Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, Columbia Riverkeeper and other environmental groups have sent a notice of intent to sue BNSF Railway and several coal companies for violations of the Clean Water Act.

“This letter has informed them of their illegal discharge of coal dust in chunks and other potentially dangerous material into the Columbia River and other Northwest waterways in violation of the federal clean water act,” said Cesia Kearns with the Sierra Club’s Power Past Coal campaign.

This means that those who have been notified have 60 days in which to solve the problem and fix their violations or we may file a lawsuit to ensure that NW communities are protected.

Courtney Wallace, a spokeswoman for BNSF Railway, issued a statement in response.

“BNSF is committed to preventing coal dust from escaping while in transit,” Wallace said, adding that “if the parties holding the press conference today are truly interested in controlling coal dust, and not simply political grandstanding,” they can help by defending the railway company’s proposed rule for dust control.

That rule is pending before the Surface Transportation Board. Some utilities have called it unnecessary.

The environmental groups say their concerns are around water pollution. They contend coal trains should be regulated as what are called “point sources” of pollution under the law. That would put coal trains in the same category of water polluter as wastewater treatment plants and concentrated animal feeding operations, and could require permits to “discharge” coal from trains that travel along waterways.

The key phrase here is “rolling stock” – that’s a term in the Clean Water Act that can refer to trains as point sources of water pollution.

From the Clean Water Act:

“The term “point source” means any discernible, confined and discrete conveyance, including but not limited to any pipe, ditch, channel, tunnel, conduit, well, discrete fissure, container, rolling stock, concentrated animal feeding operation, or vessel or other floating craft, from which pollutants are or may be discharged.”

Sanne Knudson is a law professor at the University of Washington and an expert on the environmental review process. She said the success of the environmentalists’ legal strategy will come down to whether the courts accept their contention that trains loaded with coal are a “point source” of pollution.

“If we’re just talking the Clean Water Act and what falls within the discharge of pollutants into waters of the U.S. from a point source, the logical turning point of this case will be on whether or not these coal trains could be designated as point sources,” Knudson said. “The definition of “point source” is broad.”

(Hover over markers to hear reports on coal in communities of the Northwest. Then click “website” for more EarthFix coverage. Click here for larger map view. Note: Train routes are approximations. They illustrate potential corridors based on existing lines and publicly available information.)

© 2013 KUOW
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