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Environmental Groups, BNSF To Settle Coal Pollution Case

Kimon Berlin
Flickr -
File photo of coal trains near Wyoming's North Antelope Rochelle Mine

A federal civil trial in Seattle against Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway is on hold pending a tentative settlement in a case brought by seven environmental groups that has been in litigation since 2013.

Plaintiffs argued coal dust and pieces of coal the company ships from Wyoming’s Powder River Basin across the Northwest have been polluting Washington’s waterways for years in violation of the federal Clean Water Act.

The draft settlement would require BNSF to fund a two-year study to look at methods for covering rail cars that carry coal. According to BNSF, physical covers are not available commercially.

The company would also be on the hook for $1 million in conservation and restoration projects in the Evergreen state.

In an email statement, BNSF spokeswoman Courtney Wallace said the settlement for $1 million, rather than the $46 trillion environmental groups asked for “reflects the truth that [their] sweeping allegations were simply unfounded.”

The company denies any violation of the Clean Water Act. The settlement would mean plaintiffs agree not to bring similar litigation against BNSF for the next five years.

In a statement, spokeswoman Mariana Parks from the Alliance for Northwest Jobs and Exports called the environmental groups that brought the case “overzealous.” Parks said the settlement “underscores … that coal dust is not an issue in this region.”

But during the week-long trial in Seattle, eyewitnesses gave testimony to the contrary. According to plaintiffs, “a million or more coal particles per second come off of each rail car.”

The groups include the Sierra Club, Puget Soundkeeper, Columbia Riverkeeper, Spokane Riverkeeper, RE Sources for Sustainable Communities, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and Friends of the Columbia Gorge.