ANOTHER VOICE: Call on Gorge Commission to take a stand on coal transport pollution

Despite a recent lawsuit to stop coal pollution in the Columbia Gorge, coal dust continues to blow off uncovered coal railroad cars traveling along the BNSF railroad line in Washington. As a recent letter to the editor in the Hood River News (Aug. 9, 2017) stated:

“As we passed (a coal train heading westbound, we were driving westbound) there was a hail storm of coal dust. Little pellets slammed like ice particles against my windshield. The assault continued until the train was gone.”

Why is the pollution allowed to continue? If a citizen or business litters, they are charged with violating of the law. Why should the railroads be any different? Do they have a license to pollute? Here are a few answers.

The largest coal deposits in North America are located in central Wyoming and Montana, in a region called the Powder River Basin. Day and night, entire trainloads of coal leave these mines, in our case, bound for the TransAlta power plant in Centralia, Wash., and for export to Asia from Vancouver, Wash.

If the nation’s largest proposed coal export terminal is approved in Longview, Wash., there could be 18 additional coal trains (loaded and unloaded) travelling through the Gorge daily in addition to the current two to three coal trains.

In 2013, seven environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, Friends of the Columbia Gorge and Columbia Riverkeeper, sued BNSF, arguing that it violated the federal Clean Water Act by allowing its trains to discharge coal and other pollutants into state rivers and waterways without a permit.

Three years later, the case went to trial. Scientists and experts testified along with eyewitnesses showing video and photographic evidence of coal dust polluting adjacent waterways and being pelted by coal from passing trains while recreating or driving. In the middle of trial, the parties reached an agreement in principle, called a consent decree.

Under the settlement, BNSF agreed to pay for a $2 million study about rail car covers for coal. In addition, the settlement requires BNSF to contribute $1 million towards environmental projects across Washington State and to clean up areas of the Columbia River and its tributaries. So far, BNSF has done several coal clean ups in multiple locations, using giant vacuum cleaners.

BNSF has also been spraying the tops of the coal cars with a liquid binding agent, like hair spray, to keep loose coal dust from flying off the railcars as they leave the mines. Recently they added a second spray station in Pasco, Wash. Despite this, when coal trains meet the Gorge winds, they continue to blow off and pollute Gorge land and water.

Covered coal cars might provide an answer, but results of that study are years off. Another possible answer is the power vested in the Columbia River Gorge Commission. They have the authority to prevent harm to Gorge resources and under their new Management Plan, and they could use their legal power to stop coal pollution. This may be our best, closest option. Please urge the commission to take a stand on coal pollution and help protect the Gorge.

Peter Cornelison is a field representative with Friends of the Columbia Gorge and testified at the coal pollution trial. He is also a Hood River City Council Member.

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