A threat by environmental groups to sue BNSF Railway Co. and several coal companies for polluting the Columbia River and its tributaries has nothing to do, and everything to do, with plans to export coal from Wyoming and Montana to Asia.
The groups, including the Sierra Club and Columbia Riverkeeper, claim coal trains are already fouling the waters with dust and chunks of coal escaping the open-top cars that haul coal to the Centralia Generating Station and an export terminal in British Columbia. Estimates vary as to how much material floats or falls out of the trains during the long trip from the coal fields to the coast. In the letter to BNSF and the coal companies, the environmentalists cite BNSF numbers ranging from 250 pounds to 700 pounds per car, each of which contains 120 tons.
Dust was one of the major concerns about the trains and ports raised during testimony at hearings last fall; mostly for potential impacts on those with breathing problems like asthma, but also for the ugly black coating it might slather on nearby buildings. The railroad has discounted the problem in the Northwest, but took quite another tack in a 2009 case before the Surface Transportation Board brought by an Arkansas utility.
During those proceedings, BNSF argued for a tariff it wanted to impose on coal shippers to cover the cost of applying dust. The particles were clogging the rock ballast between railroad ties. The ballast becomes less stable, which in 2005 led to two derailments.
The board agreed the dust was a problem, but disallowed the tariff.
The Arkansas case suggests two questions that must be answered in the Northwest: Will the tracks along the Columbia be destabilized by additional coal dust, and are the dust and coal fragments causing significant pollution?
The environmental groups are ready to put those questions before a judge, but why?
The environmental impact statement that will be prepared for the ports, if as comprehensive as it should be, will get at the dust issue and the many others that have probably engaged more people on both sides than any other environmental matter in recent history. We have supported such a study because of the cumulative impact multiple trains might have in Spokane and Spokane Valley, particularly at crossings.
But we remain wary of the approach called for by Gov. Jay Inslee and Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, who last month asked for a study that encompasses the implications for global warming if Chinese and Indian utilities burn the 100 million-plus tons of coal the miners and railroads would so like to deliver.
No question the pollution will not stop at their borders, but foes of the West Coast terminals should have no delusions about the availability of coal from other sources should the Northwest turn back the trains.