Laura James pulls a piece of black porous rock from the water beneath the railroad bridge in the Seattle neighborhood of Ballard. These and other field samples were gathered for a lawsuit against coal companies and a railway.
SEATTLE — A coalition of environmental groups in Washington and Oregon has sued BNSF Railway and several coal companies, alleging trains are dumping coal in violation of the Clean Water Act.
The coalition filed the lawsuit in Western Washington’s federal district court. It came two months after many of the participating environmental groups [had gathered samples of coal in Northwest waters](/water/article/whats-in-the-water-under-the-ballard-rail-bridge/ “”), including Puget Sound and the Columbia River.
For years coal trains have traveled the Northwest’s rails. So far, they’ve delivered coal from the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana to Northwest coal-fired power plants or to an export terminal in British Columbia. But with several such facilities proposed in Oregon and Washington, coal traffic could rise dramatically.
In early April, environmental groups [filed a notice of their intent](/water/article/environmental-groups-announce-plan-to-sue-rail-and/ “”) to take the coal companies and BNSF Railway to court.
The Sierra Club, Puget Soundkeeper, Columbia Riverkeeper and others say that coal should be regulated as a point source pollutant under the Clean Water Act. That would put coal trains in the same regulatory category as wastewater treatment plants and large livestock farms.
“The main issue here is that every train that goes through today, yesterday tomorrow has discharged and will continue to discharge coal and each and every discharge is illegal,” said Charles Tebbutt, one of the lawyers representing the environmental groups.
BNSF Railway declined to be interviewed for the story but emailed a statement calling the lawsuit “meritless” and “nothing more than a publicity stunt meant to stop the permitting of export terminals in the Pacific Northwest.”
BNSF Railway has[ publicly stated](http://www.scribd.com/doc/129350651/Surface-TransMinutes-9-10-09-1 “”) that more than 645 pounds of coal can escape from each train car over 400 miles.
[BNSF research](http://www.bnsf.com/customers/pdf/coal-super-trial.pdf “”) has shown that the use of surfactants reduce the coal dust by about 85 percent. That would bring the 645-pound figure down to about 100 pounds of coal dust escaping per car.
There are usually about 125 or more cars per coal train.