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BNSF Railway agrees to study covers for rail cars transporting coal to reduce dust

Rail cars on elevated tracks make their way through downtown Spokane on Nov. 20, 2012. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Rail cars on elevated tracks make their way through downtown Spokane on Nov. 20, 2012. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

BNSF Railway Co. has reached a settlement with Washington environmental groups over coal dust from uncovered train cars.

The railroad agreed to a two-year study of methods for covering rail cars carrying coal. Under the proposed agreement, BNSF also will spend $1 million on environmental projects in the state and clean up deposits of coal and petroleum byproducts near water.

The Spokane Riverkeeper was among the coalition of seven environmental groups that sued BNSF in 2013 under the federal Clean Water Act, saying coal particles and dust from trains is polluting the Spokane River, its Hangman Creek tributary and other Washington waterways such as the Columbia River and Puget Sound.

“I have a bag of coal hanging on my computer that was picked up by volunteers from Hangman Creek,” said Jerry White Jr., the Spokane Riverkeeper.

“The settlement orders a cleanup of dirty sites and creates a pathway for getting those cars covered,” he said.

Other litigants included the Sierra Club, Puget Soundkeeper, Columbia Riverkeeper and Friends of the Columbia Gorge.

The agreement, which is expected to be finalized in 60 days, will put on hold a trial that began last week in federal court in Seattle.

In late October, a federal judge ruled that BNSF could be held liable if environmental groups could show during trial that coal was being spilled directly from trains into waterways. In that case, passing trains could be considered pollution sources, he said.

BNSF denies any violations of the Clean Water Act, said Courtney Wallace, a railroad spokeswoman.

“Plaintiffs originally sued BNSF for $4.6 trillion, claiming that coal dust penetrated waterways across the Pacific Northwest. Our settlement of $1 million … reflects the truth that these sweeping allegations were simply unfounded,” said a statement released by the railroad.

Hundreds of BNSF trains ship coal from Wyoming and Montana’s Powder River basin to ports in Washington and British Columbia each year.

Some of the coal is unloaded through the bottom of the rail cars and other cars are flipped over to dump out the coal, Wallace said. The different unloading methods make it difficult to cover the loads, she said.

The coal is sprayed with a glue-like topping that reduces wind erosion, which Wallace said is the best method of dust control currently available. The topping is applied before coal shipments leave the mines. BNSF applies a second layer of topping in the Tri-Cities, though the railroad denies that coal is escaping from the cars, she said.

The settlement comes as state officials review an application for a new coal-export facility in Southwest Washington. If approved, Millennium Bulk Terminals’ facility eventually could increase the number of coal trains through Spokane and Sandpoint by up to 16 daily.

The Millennium facility would transfer coal from rail cars onto ships bound for Asia. By 2028, the proposed Longview terminal would export about 44 million metric tons of coal each year.

Hundreds of people attended a May hearing on the terminal at the Spokane Convention Center, with some waiting hours to testify either in support or opposition.

The Seattle-based Alliance for Northwest Jobs and Export issued a statement Tuesday supporting BNSF, coal trains and exports.

The settlement ends costly litigation and “recognizes the fact that coal will continue to be safely transported through the Northwest, just as it has for well over a century,” said Mariana Park, the alliance spokeswoman.


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