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By Geoff Folsom, Tri-City Herald

Sierra Club sues Burlington Northern Santa Fe over coal dust in waterways

The Sierra Club filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday against Burlington Northern Santa Fe, claiming tons of coal dust blows off the company's trains into Puget Sound and Washington rivers, including the Columbia.

This is the same pollution of coal dust blowing into Northwest rivers and Puget Sound the train tracks follow as their preferred routes that I made the subject of my first public comment to the panel during the hearings on the Maritime Pacific Terminal near Bellingham.
The lawsuit, filed in Seattle, doesn't specifically mention any problems in the Mid-Columbia, but Sierra Club spokeswoman Krista Collard said Tri-City residents have reason for concern.

"If you have rail lines that go along the waterways, you're probably at risk," Collard told the Herald.

The Sierra Club plans to file a similar suit in the Eastern District of Washington -- which includes Richland, Yakima and Spokane -- at a later date, according to a news release.

Each open coal loses 500 to 600 poulds of coal along its way to the terminals on the Pacific Coast.  

This is one more way the plans for the three coal export terminals could be derailed. This type of coal pollution has been going on for many decades, and has been largely ignored for too long.

Originally posted to Lefty Coaster on Thu Jun 06, 2013 at 12:56 AM PDT.

Also republished by DK GreenRoots, Climate Hawks, and Climate Change SOS.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (20+ / 0-)

    "If Wall Street paid a tax on every “game” they run, we would get enough revenue to run the government on." ~ Will Rogers

    by Lefty Coaster on Thu Jun 06, 2013 at 12:56:12 AM PDT

  •  Bear With Me Here (11+ / 0-)

    I got a sick family member. I have driven by the largest coal power plant in the world not in China a lot. I recall coming back from the hospital, like 30 miles out, in stunned silence with my father (my mom is the sick person). Looking out the window of the car.

    I said look at those clouds, beautiful.

    He said those are not clouds, that is the emissions from the power plant.

  •  edit nanny says: (5+ / 0-)
    Each open coal CAR loses 500 to 600 pouNds of coal
    other than that A++, thanks for this LC.

    about dam time, geez, what a mess!

    This machine kills Fascists.

    by KenBee on Thu Jun 06, 2013 at 02:07:24 AM PDT

    •  The link implies that the amount (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Lefty Coaster, 6412093, RosyFinch

      could actually be up to about 4,200 pounds per car, which is about 2 tons or about 2% of the entire load.

      I'd really like to see how they came up with that number.

      •  Simply by weighing cars at the start and the end (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        KenBee, aliasalias

        of their journey.

        "If Wall Street paid a tax on every “game” they run, we would get enough revenue to run the government on." ~ Will Rogers

        by Lefty Coaster on Thu Jun 06, 2013 at 07:55:25 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  it must be some other way as I never saw ONE car (0+ / 0-)

          weighed at the end of the route (Vancouver at Roberts Bank) all we did was spot the train in the dumper, climb off the engine (when I wasn't on the caboose)and they took over moving the train car by car over the dumper.

          Now I left Canadian Pacific Rlwy in 1981 so maybe they do something different now but there was nothing in place at that time to weigh cars when I was working (as a brakeman) at the end of the run unless the dumper weighed the car before turning it upside down.

          without the ants the rainforest dies

          by aliasalias on Thu Jun 06, 2013 at 03:31:05 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

  •  Here's a couple more links that provide context (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Odysseus, 6412093

    How Much Coal Dust Will There Really Be?

    BNSF Railway Statement on STB Coal Dust

    Basically it appears that virtually all of the dust blows out of the loads soon after loading in the Powder River Basin.

    So, if the Sierra Club is going to continue with this lawsuit, it seems like they either need to ante up evidence that waterways in the Pacific Northwest actually are being polluted with coal dust OR (and this seems the stronger option) instead focus on the Powder River Basin, where everybody, including the railroad, admits this is occurring.

    btw, BNSF is apparently taking steps to mitigate this, but clearly there needs to be some stringent oversight to ensure that they are following through

    •  This is just not so (7+ / 0-)

      Let us deal here with just one leg the Columbia River Gorge which is a national scenic area. People in this area are micro managed when building a house for fear that the view will be damaged. The train runs from one end to the other. For the purposes of coal it starts in Pasco, WA and ends in Vancouver, WA.

      It runs directly through several towns and for the most of the way, right directly next to the river.

      The gorge is pretty constantly windy, a popular place for sail boarding and turbine wind plants.

      If there was no or even anything resembling an acceptable amount dust blowing off of these trains the powers that be would not be taking their air samples UPWIND but instead taking them where it might show what those of us who live here already know that these trains put off alot of dust and it gets on everything.

      It rains and runs into the rivers.

      It is the heart that makes a man rich. He is rich according to what he is not what he has -Henry Ward Beecher

      by PSWaterspirit on Thu Jun 06, 2013 at 06:45:27 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  My point was simply that from the information (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        6412093

        that I have been able to find about this, there is no evidence or data presented about these "downstream" effects of the coal dust (as compared to the information available about the PRB, which is quite compelling).

        If you have a link to the data you mention, I'd be much obliged if you'd post it, thanks!

        •  The Sierra Club has been gathering evidence (3+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          6412093, KenBee, aliasalias

          along the rivers and beaches the rail routes follow. Just claiming there isn't any evidence doesn't make it so.

          "If Wall Street paid a tax on every “game” they run, we would get enough revenue to run the government on." ~ Will Rogers

          by Lefty Coaster on Thu Jun 06, 2013 at 08:05:19 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

        •  And my point is (5+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          6412093, RosyFinch, KenBee, aliasalias, Bronx59

          they have skewed the results by knowingly doing things like testing the air upwind from the trains.

          The study you are sighting was done on behalf of Burlington Northern. Frankly, in this town, Gerogia Pacific is more resposive and concerned toward our community than they are.

          What I am telling you is we have coal dust in our houses blocks and blocks from the tracks, we have people that we can see standing up wind checking the air and telling us everything is great. We complain and nobody listens. Not the environmental groups not the government and most certainly not the railroad.

          We are near the end of the line so we are probably getting far less than further up the line where it is far more windy.

          All  the sight "the study" the study is false the sprays are not as effective as they say. The coal hasn't even gotten rolling yet. We are currently fighting for an environmental impact statement   that covers all of the coal ports. They do not want to investigate the cumlative effects of all that coal on the gorge and the largest salmon population on the west coast.

          I don't hold out much hope that it will change anything because everybody wants to believe "the study" and not even question if the data is flawed.

          It is the heart that makes a man rich. He is rich according to what he is not what he has -Henry Ward Beecher

          by PSWaterspirit on Thu Jun 06, 2013 at 08:19:12 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

    •  You swallowed Big Coal's lies hook line & sinker (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      6412093, KenBee, aliasalias

      I have personally watched coal trains hundreds of miles from the mines, with a grey cloud viable above the open coal cars speeding down the rails.

      BNSF's mitigation using surfactant is good mainly for PR purposes.  

      "If Wall Street paid a tax on every “game” they run, we would get enough revenue to run the government on." ~ Will Rogers

      by Lefty Coaster on Thu Jun 06, 2013 at 08:02:17 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  I was just going on the information provided (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        6412093, KenBee

        which was a link you gave to the Tri-City Herald, which in turn stated that the Sierra Club's claims were related to information from the Railroad itself.

        So, I went straight to the information that BNSF put out (and also linked a commentary from Oregon Public Broadcasting that mirrored what I was saying - but I really don't know what their bias is on this issue so maybe they are unreliable too).

        And what I found was that BNSF was saying two things

        1) 500 pounds of coal dust WAS lost per car per trip

        2) but that that 500 pounds was lost very quickly after loading, not uniformly or linearly over the distance of the trip.

        The Sierra Club seems to have opted to clam onto the first claim while rejecting the second.  Which is curious because if the railroad is not to be believed, how can that be true?

        Look, I'm not denying that coal dust is a problem is a problem beyond the Powder River Basin - I'm just asking to see the tangible evidence of this - you know, of the type the Sierra Club plans to present in court.  For example, if they present Point 1 from BNSF in court as being true, how are they going to turn on a dime and then claim that BNSF is putting out misinformation and Point 2 is false?

        I'm just saying that this doesn't seem like a very strong litigation strategy and I would not be inclined to - oh let's say contribute a few dollars to the Sierra Club to help them out with their lawsuit if they don't have more than this.

        I dunno, that doesn't seem unreasonable to me.  But maybe it's just me.

        •  Piles of coal are porous wind & rain circulate (3+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          6412093, KenBee, aliasalias

          through the whole pile not just the top side of the chunks on top that get sprayed with the surfactant. Each car has drain holes along the bottom and when it rains coal is washed out of the car a;long with rainwater (often directly into the river and onto beaches the tracks follow). It does rain a lot here too.

          "If Wall Street paid a tax on every “game” they run, we would get enough revenue to run the government on." ~ Will Rogers

          by Lefty Coaster on Thu Jun 06, 2013 at 08:33:11 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  I am not disputing whether any or all of that (2+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            6412093, KenBee

            happens - I am totally onboard that it is all plausible.

            I am just inquiring what evidence the Sierra Club has wrt to presenting it court in support of their lawsuit.

            You know, so I can figure out if I should send them a donation in support of their lawsuit if it is going to be totally wasted, or whether they have some tangible evidence in support of their position.

            So far everything seems to hinge on BNSF's documents, which I just don't think are going to cut it.

    •  not so, I was a brakeman and sometimes I was on (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Lefty Coaster

      the caboose on the trip back and we had to deal with coal dust unless it was raining or snowing to suppress the dust.

      When you sit on a caboose and hear the clickety clack coming down the train (where you are at the end of this whip) you put your feet on the foot rest and wrapped your arms under each arm rest and waited for the big jerk...back and forth. That's when you'd see dust pop up all down the train and from the perch in the caboose you are looking down into the cars ahead so we had a good view.

      When I worked for Canadian Pacific in the late 70's-early 80's out of that coal terminal at Roberts Bank sometimes I was bumped (less seniority)to the caboose from the engine because some brakeman (with more seniority) didn't want to ride back there. I know we kept the windows back there closed (again it wasn't bad if it was raining) and still coal dust was on stuff inside the caboose.
      We are dealing with loads of coal that are not rocks and keep in mind that even back then they were spraying a suppressant at the source but hundreds of miles later, countless times of slamming and jerking the cars up and down hills and mountains, and at best you'd see some big chunks intact (with what looked like icing).

      Again my route was taking empties north up Fraser Canyon approximately 145 miles and returning with loads handed off to us from a crew from Kamloops (who got it from Revelstoke crew etc.) to the final  destination (for the railroad) at Roberts Bank and yes coal dust will act like dust, it blows.

      without the ants the rainforest dies

      by aliasalias on Thu Jun 06, 2013 at 03:52:10 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Abundant direct evidence has been collected (5+ / 0-)

    Not just BNSF documents.  Which BTW BNSF has never released the entire coal dust study despite many requests.

    Illustrated by this Youtube

  •  What the coal haters did (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    KenBee, Roadbed Guy, RosyFinch

    was put large trays near the railroad tracks at several suspect locations, including the River's edge and maybe even in surface waters.

    After awhile, they collected and tested the residues in the trays, and voila, there was beaucoup coal dust.

    They also collected older samples from along the tracks that contained coal.

    The Portland Oregonian on and just before April 2nd had a lengthy article describing their collection techniques.  Alas, all I can google up are photos, not the actual text from the stories.

    http://s3.amazonaws.com/...

    My admiration is boundless for their imaginative, low-tech technique to prove up the airborne coal pollution.

    I can't believe the coal and railroad companies don't spend a few bucks to enclose those loads.  they'd make the money back by reducing coal losses.  Cheap b@#%@^%rds.

    I am, however, uncertain if you can gin up a Clean Water suit that hinges on airborne pollution.

    Orly, it isn't evidence just because you downloaded it from the internet.

    by 6412093 on Thu Jun 06, 2013 at 10:18:48 AM PDT

    •  Thanks, that was the type of information (0+ / 0-)

      I was looking for!

      To me it would seem like they would then have to go on to match chemical signatures from those samples (i.e., the trays next to the track) with samples actually taken from the affected waterway(s).

      I appreciate that people have a gut feeling when they see coal dust blowing off of a train next to a river that the river is being contaminated.  Maybe in the same way that it intuitively made sense back when it was observed that smokers had a higher incidence of lung cancer than expected, that it was the smoking that was to blame.  But still, a huge amount of rigorous science had to go into proving that!  

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