BNSF Railway required to clean up coal train pollution

March 3, 2017

BNSF Railway (BNSF) will be forced to pay for the cleanup of Pacific Northwest waterways that were polluted for decades by coal or petroleum coke (“petcoke”) emitted from their open-topped train cars.

A finalized consent decree lodged with U.S. District Court Judge John Coughenour today brings to a close a Clean Water Act case brought against BNSF by a coalition of environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, Puget Soundkeeper, Columbia Riverkeeper, Spokane Riverkeeper, RE Sources for Sustainable Communities, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and Friends of the Columbia Gorge.

During the week-long November 2016 trial, scientists testified that a million or more coal particles per second come off of each rail car, dumping mercury, arsenic, and hundreds of other pollutants into rivers, lakes and oceans along BNSF rail lines. Eyewitnesses also recounted being pelted by coal from passing trains while recreating or driving along waterways.

As part of the settlement, BNSF agreed to pay for a precedent-setting study about rail car covers for coal and petcoke train cars that puts the rail operator on a court-ordered path toward keeping coal and petcoke out of sensitive water bodies.

The settlement also requires BNSF to pay $1 million for environmental projects across the state of Washington, focused on projects in the Bellingham, Puget Sound, Columbia River and Spokane River areas. BNSF will also clean up the following areas of the Columbia River and its tributaries that have been littered with large amounts of coal and petcoke from BNSF trains:

  • Horsethief Lake
  • Drano Lake Rail Bridge and parking area
  • White Salmon River and its confluence with the Columbia River
  • Confluence of Rock Creek and the Columbia River
  • Causeway near Murdock, WA

Environmental groups that brought the suit are celebrating the settlement:

“BNSF Railway spent decades downplaying the fact that coal from their trains was polluting some the most ecologically and culturally important waterways of the Pacific Northwest,” said Cesia Kearns, Deputy Regional Campaign Director for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign. “This settlement finally forces BNSF to take responsibility for their impact on our water, clean up the mess they made and take steps to prevent similar pollution in the future.”

“Our public waters are not dumping grounds for coal and toxic pollutants,” said Chris Wilke, Puget Soundkeeper Executive Director. “This settlement rightfully places the burden of cleaning up contamination from coal trains with the company responsible for the pollution, and it will also lead the way in affirming technologies to prevent coal from entering waterways in the future.”

“When dealing with corporations like BNSF, we as citizens must use every tool in our toolbox to ensure polluters — no matter how large or powerful — are being held accountable for contaminating our shared water resources. Owning their responsibility for the pollution they produce is simply the cost of doing business,” said Lee First, North Sound Baykeeper at RE Sources for Sustainable Communities. “In the North Puget Sound, we will never back down from fighting to protect the cleanliness of our water — even if it means taking on multi billion dollar companies in court.”

This public health threat of BNSF’s coal trains would be exacerbated by Millennium Bulk Terminals’ proposal to build the largest coal export terminal in North America in Longview, Washington, bringing up to eight additional fully loaded train cars a day travelling along BNSF lines between Longview and the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana. Millennium has appealed a decision by the Washington State Department of Natural Resources to reject a sublease needed for the project. The Army Corps of Engineers’ Final Environmental Impact Study on the project is expected in June.

The plaintiffs are represented by Charlie Tebbutt, Dan Snyder, and Sarah Matsumoto, The Law Offices of Charles M. Tebbutt, PC; Jessica Yarnall Loarie, Sierra Club; Andrea Rodgers, Western Environmental Law Center, David Pettit and Morgan Wyenn, Natural Resources Defense Council; and Nathan Baker, Friends of the Columbia Gorge.

Media contact: Crina Hoyer, Executive Director, RE Sources for Sustainable Communities,, 360-223-8678

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