Groups sue over coal in Columbia

A handful of environmental groups announced last week they intend to sue BNSF railroad and several coal export companies after finding coal in and near local waterways which they say is from improperly secured loads of coal trains haul through the Gorge every day.

The citizen lawsuit is to be filed by Columbia Riverkeeper, Friends of the Columbia Gorge and others will be filed within the next 60 days in federal court. It alleges that six coal companies and BNSF are in violation of the Federal Water Pollution Control Act — commonly referred to as the Clean Water Act — for allowing coal dust and chunks to escape from uncovered railcars.

Most of the trains passing through the Gorge come from the Powder River Basin coal mines in Wyoming and are traveling to coal export terminals in British Columbia as well as a coal-fired power plant in Centralia.

Several local rivers and lakes are listed as having pollutants illegally discharged into them by coal trains, including the Columbia River, Drano Lake, Horsethief Lake, the Klickitat River, the Little White Salmon River, Rowland Lake and the White Salmon River.

Brett Vandenheuvel, executive director of Columbia Riverkeeper, said the problem extends far beyond the Gorge.

“People have been finding coal all along the rail lines, all the way up to Puget Sound,” he told The Enterprise last week. “We’ve found coal along every tributary along the Columbia.”

Vandenheuvel further explained that Riverkeeper recently released information from a study “independent scientists” conducted this past winter. The study took samples for analysis of what was presumed to be coal from areas near the BNSF tracks on the Washington side of the Gorge as well as the Columbia River and its tributaries.

He said the little black coal chunks are easy to spot and in some places in the Gorge, the deposits are nearly 6 inches deep.

The samples were sent to scientists at ALS Environmental — an environmental testing lab in Kelso — who confirmed the presence of coal.

The Enterprise asked for the results of the study from Vandenheuvel, but hadn’t received them by press time. He explained that a litany of toxins present in coal can cause great harm to the environment, even before it’s burned.

“Coal contains toxic pollutants like mercury, arsenic, lead, and other heavy metals,” Vandenheuvel said. “It also contains PAH (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons), which is a known toxin to fish even in low levels.”

Friends of the Columbia Gorge estimates that four coal trains currently travel through the Gorge every day. What’s most concerning to environmentalists as well as other Gorge residents are current proposals to build a handful of coal terminals in Pacific Northwest cities that, if all approved, could raise that number up to 30 trains a day.

Vandenheuvel said that by BNSF’s own estimates, the uncovered 100-cartrains lose, on average, approximately 500 pounds of coal per car on each journey from the Powder River basin.

“It’s a tremendous amount of coal,” he said.

However, the point may be somewhat moot as plans to build many of these terminals have run into roadblocks or have been tossed out altogether.

Last August, plans to build a coal terminal at the Port of Grays Harbor fell through and last week, the Port of Coos Bay announced a coal terminal project planned for its facilities in Coos Bay was also kaput. Other proposed projects have fallen under increased scrutiny from government officials and face permitting delays.

BNSF is also taking a hard look at coal exports, although from a bit of a different angle than environmental groups.

According to an April 2 story in The Oregonian, BNSF is all for containing coal dust, as the substance can derail trains by undermining track ballast. BNSF spokesperson Courtney Wallace stated that the railroad “does not believe coal or any commodity should be allowed to escape from our containers.”

The story went on to report, however, that BNSF has been taking measures in the past couple of years to keep coal dust down by spraying topper agents on their loads and are skeptical the debris environmental groups refer to came from current trains.

The Seattle Times also reported on April 2 that BNSF has been defensive of their shipping record and quoted a press release from the railroad calling the pending litigation “a nuisance lawsuit without merit.”

If the “discharges” of coal don’t cease within 60 days of April 2, the plaintiffs will file suit; seeking civil penalties of $37,500 per day for each violation, as well as seeking removal of the pollutants from affected waterways.

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