Coal Doesn't Belong in our Water

Whatever you happen to think about climate change or energy policy, I think everyone can agree that coal does not belong in our waterways.  Yet every day, several times a day, trains carry coal across and alongside our waterways—rivers, streams, lakes, sounds—and leave pieces of coal and coal byproducts in their wake. 

In the State of Washington alone, local residents find layers of coal dust and even chunks of coal on the banks of their nearby waterways that are crisscrossed by coal-carrying trains.  BNSF Railway Company, which hauls a lot of the country’s coal along its railroad tracks, admitted that each rail car loses an average of 500 to 3,500 pounds of coal dust per trip.  Because each train has approximately 120 rail cars, that means an average of 60,000 to 420,000 pounds of coal is lost per train each trip.  When the trains are near waterways or on bridges traversing waterways, some of this coal ends up in the water.

This pollution is preventable.  Even if BNSF continues to carry coal across our country, it can take practical steps to prevent the coal from polluting our waterways.  For example, the rail cars could be covered, so that coal dust, chunks of coal, and other materials do not fly off the top.  The rail cars could also be better designed and maintained, so that coal did not leak out of the bottom of them.  Yet BNSF and the coal industry have refused to take such measures, despite the fact that they have been aware of this problem for years.

The discharge of any pollutant into U.S. waterways without a permit is illegal; it violates one of our country’s most important environmental laws, the Clean Water Act.  Coal is no exception to this.  Discharging it into our waterways is a Clean Water Act violation, and a strong coalition of environmental organizations have come together to stop it. 

NRDC is working with the Sierra Club, the Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, Re Sources for Sustainable Communities, Columbia Riverkeeper, Friends of the Columbia Gorge, and the Spokane Riverkeeper, to bring a lawsuit against BNSF. 

We cannot allow the coal industry to be above the law.  We must hold them accountable for polluting our precious waterways and violating federal law.  

About the Authors

Morgan Wyenn

Staff Attorney, Climate & Air program

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