The Sierra Club and allied environmental organizations announced they may go to court to use the federal Clean Water Act to curb alleged spillage of dust and fragments from coal trains passing through the Columbia Gorge and other places in Washington, including Bellingham.
At a Tuesday, April 2, news conference, Cesia Kearns, a Sierra Club spokeswoman, said BNSF Railway Co. and the coal producers who use its rails have been given formal notice of intent to sue.
Under the terms of the Clean Water Act, the notice gives the companies 60 days to stop the Clean Water Act violations that environmentalists allege are ongoing. At that point, the groups could go to federal court to seek a binding order directing BNSF and the coal companies to curb violations, if the evidence justifies that.
BNSF is shipping Wyoming and Montana coal across Washington to coal export terminals in British Columbia. The environmentalists threatening legal action made it clear that their real targets are Gateway Pacific Terminal and other coal export terminals proposed for Washington.
"It was shocking to learn the scope of the problem that exists today with just one to four trains per day," said Samantha Lockhart, spokeswoman for Friends of the Columbia Gorge.
If approved by regulators and built to full capacity, Gateway Pacific would add as many as nine more coal trains per day, moving through Bellingham and other points across the state to piers at Whatcom County's Cherry Point.
Eric de Place, policy director for Sightline Institute, said there has not been enough research on the effect of spilled coal on rivers, creeks and saltwater environments. In his view, more extensive research needs to be done before any expansion of coal shipping is considered.
"We do know that coal can be a very long-lived source of contamination," de Place said. "It's not a very well-studied issue, which is a problem."
In an email message, toxicologist Roger McClellan contended the environmental groups were exaggerating the harm from coal spilled into waterways. McClellan is a former chairman of the National Academy of Sciences committee on toxicology.
"As an expert in toxicology who has worked with EPA, other federal and state agencies, and private industry on human health risks over my 50-year career, I can tell you that the mere presence of coal by a railroad track or in the water is not a health hazard," McClellan said.
"Coal has been used for home heating and industrial use in Washington state and across the U.S. for centuries. Coal has been traveling through the Northwest by rail for over 40 years," he said. "Claiming that finding a piece of coal on the ground or in the water leads to a health or environment risk violates one of the basic tenets of toxicology. Any decision on exports of coal needs to be driven by scientific facts and analysis. It is irresponsible to release exaggerated claims and mislead the public and regulators about the impact of moving coal."
Coal does have a long history in Whatcom County, as well as other places in Western Washington. The Bellingham Coal Mines operated in northwest Bellingham for many years before they closed in 1955. Old-timers say the salmon they pulled out of Squalicum Creek in those days had coal dust in their gills from the mine waste.
Earlier, the Blue Canyon Coal Mine bored into the hillside on the southeast shore of Lake Whatcom, now the source of drinking water for Bellingham and surrounding areas. Exposed coal seams still are visible in creeks that descend into the lake along the Lake Whatcom trail.
But the lakeside coal may not be as innocuous as it seems. In 2004, the Washington Department of Ecology conducted a study to investigate possible sources of mercury found in the flesh of smallmouth bass in Lake Whatcom. That mercury seems to have come from a variety of sources. But the study noted that while mercury levels in lake tributaries were generally not high enough to be a concern, mercury levels above the environmental standard were detected in Blue Canyon Creek water in a November 2002 sample, close to the Blue Canyon mine site.
BNSF Railway spokeswoman Courtney Wallace sent the company's written reply to the Sierra Club's announcement. The reply suggests that environmentalists ought to join BNSF in the railroad's own efforts to curb coal dust. BNSF reports that power companies are challenging BNSF's own coal dust regulations as "unreasonable."
"BNSF is committed to preventing coal dust from escaping while in transit," the BNSF statement says. "If the parties holding the press conference today are truly interested in controlling coal dust, and not simply political grandstanding, there is a forum where they can help. We would encourage them to join BNSF in defending its (coal dust control) rule, and can send letters supporting the necessity of controlling dust to the Surface Transportation Board and urging the Board to act quickly to confirm BNSF's rule."
Several utilities are arguing to the board that the BNSF coal dust rule is an unreasonable practice.
BNSF's statement says the company is "disappointed" by the environmental groups' threat of legal action, which they characterized as nothing more than a publicity effort aimed at defeating new coal export terminal proposals.
The railroad also contends that some of the coal environmentalists are finding along the tracks may have been there for a long time.
"BNSF has not been contacted about the samples nor are we aware of any third-party tests confirming that what was found is indeed coal," the BNSF statement says. "Millions of tons of coal have been transported through Washington state for more than a century by barge, ship and rail as it has been a major source of fuel beginning with the steam age. There is no indication how long these few samples have been there."
COAL COMPLAINTS NEW
BNSF also contends that nobody complained about coal dust from ongoing shipments through the state until Gateway Pacific and similar proposals became a major issue.
"BNSF has also safely hauled coal in Washington for decades," the statement says. "Yet despite the movement of so much coal over such a long period of time, we were not aware of a single coal dust complaint lodged with a state agency in the Northwest or with the railroad until the recent interest in coal export terminals.
"Even if coal dust had been a concern in the past, BNSF's new coal loading rules eliminate any concern for the future. BNSF has recently established coal loading rules that require shippers to take measures to address coal dust when they load the coal cars, including the application of topper agents to the loaded coal. The topper agents are very effective at preventing coal dust losses from trains in transit."
Sightline Institute's de Place said the "topper agents" also need to be studied to determine what effect they could be having on the environment.
Washington Public Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark said the same in his official comment letter to agencies charged with drawing up the Gateway Pacific environmental impact statement.
At Tuesday's press conference, Bellingham photographer Paul Anderson said he had seen coal in the Skagit River under the railroad bridge when the river level is low. He also said he had seen coal fragments falling off a train moving past Marine Park during the Ski to Sea race.
Matt Ryan, a Columbia Gorge windsurfer at the press conference, said he has no doubt the trains are shedding significant amounts of coal.
"As a train goes past, I've noticed not just dust but large chunks of coal falling off," Ryan said.
Don McDermott, also at the press conference, said he owns a vineyard in the Dallesport, Wash., area that is bisected by a rail line. There is no doubt in his mind that coal dust is blowing off of passing trains.
"My primary concern is that there is chemical trespass on my property," McDermott said. "The railroad needs to contain their loads. The producers need to contain their loads."
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