Groups, BNSF reach agreement in coal dust suit

A coalition of environmental groups on Tuesday reached a tentative agreement with Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad (BNSF), signaling the end of a three-year court tussle over coal pollution.

The seven groups, including Hood River-based Friends of the Columbia Gorge and Columbia Riverkeeper, charged the railroad with contaminating numerous Gorge waterways with coal that dropped from railcars. They sued under the federal Clean Water Act.

Parties finally reached a settlement in federal court Tuesday morning, a decision the conservation groups called a win.

BNSF agreed to fund a two-year study into methods for physically covering coal trains. The agreement also demands the railroad pay $1 million for conservation and restoration projects in Washington, such as the cleanup of specific water bodies most affected by coal trains.

“It is precedent setting,” Michael Lang, Friends of the Columbia Gorge conservation director, said Tuesday morning. “It’s good news for the Gorge community.”

Lang explained in a joint statement the groups released that the decision paves way for “an agreement in principle” with BNSF that could spell an end to coal pollution in the Gorge, and allow cleanup of the Columbia River.

“Importantly, the court will retain jurisdiction to ensure that the terms of the agreement are enforced,” Lang noted.

BNSF runs the main coal-by-rail shipping route through the Gorge. Coal trains roll daily along the Washington side of the Columbia River, drawing controversy and safety concerns from local environmental activists for years.

“We are pleased that BNSF will seek to cover its dirty coal trains and clean up the pollution they’ve already spilled,” Brett VandenHeuvel, executive director of Columbia Riverkeeper, said in the statement. “It’s the simple solution. The railroad is not above the law.”

A judge heard testimony during a weeklong trial at the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington in Seattle. It included eyewitnesses to coal pollution and expert testimony — plaintiffs testified that a million or more coal particles per second come off of each rail car.

The groups maintained that BNSF had “discharged coal, coal chunks, coal dust, metabolites or related byproducts of coal” into U.S. waters.

According to the June 2013 complaint, various local rivers and lakes were listed on the lawsuit as being impacted by pollutants: the Columbia River, the White Salmon River, Drano Lake, Horsethief Lake, the Klickitat River, and Rowland Lake.

These were classified as “waters affected,” and “receive defendants’ coal pollutant discharges where defendant BNSF-operated rail lines and rail cars pass by, cross, or are in proximity to such waters.”

BNSF denied any violations of the Clean Water Act and said in a statement that this week’s court settlement reflects the company’s long-term efforts to address coal dust.

The company operates one of the largest freight railroad networks in North America, with 32,500 miles of tracks across the western two-thirds of the United States.

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