Environmental Groups Announce Plan To Sue Rail and Coal Companies Under Clean Water Act

Apr 3, 2013

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A coalition of environmental groups that oppose exporting coal through terminals in the Northwest have announced plans to file a lawsuit against BNSF Railway and several coal companies.

The groups say coal that escapes from trains is polluting the water and should be regulated under the Clean Water Act.

Environmental groups have collected samples of black rock in waterbodies along train tracks in the Northwest and found that some of that rock is coal.

The Sierra Club, Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, Columbia Riverkeeper and other environmental groups have sent a notice of intent to sue BNSF Railway and several coal companies for violations of the Clean Water Act.

Cesia Kearns is with the Sierra Club’s anti coal campaign.

“This letter has informed them of their illegal discharge of coal dust in chunks and other potentially dangerous material into the Columbia river and other NW waterways in violation of the federal Clean Water Act," Kearns says.

The environmental groups say coal trains should be regulated as what are called “point sources” of pollution under the law. That would put coal trains in the same category of water polluter as wastewater treatment plants and concentrated animal feeding operations.

Sanne Knudsen is a professor at the University of Washington School of Law.

“I frankly imagine that if this lawsuit were filed it would be hotly contested," Knudsen says.

The key phrase in the suit is “rolling stock”. That’s a term in the Clean Water Act that can refer to trains as sources of water pollution.

“I’m not familiar with any cases where coal trains have been held to be “rolling stock” within this definition but this definition is broad so I think that it poses a very live and interesting question," Knudsen says.

BNSF Railway declined to be interviewed for this story but sent EarthFix a statement. It said:

“This is nothing more than the threat of a nuisance lawsuit without merit, that is part of an ongoing campaign designed to create headlines to influence the review process for proposed export terminals.”

The environmental groups could file the lawsuit in 60 days.

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