Environmental groups in the Pacific Northwest are threatening several of Wyoming’s largest coal producers and a major rail company with a pollution lawsuit. But the companies named in the suit show few signs of going down without a fight.

A group led by the Sierra Club — an active opponent of coal and coal exports through the Northwest — sent letters to the heads of BNSF Railway and four companies with Wyoming mines on Tuesday, warning the companies of their plan to sue over claimed breaches of the federal Clean Water Act.

In the letters, the groups give the companies an ultimatum — clean up your pollution in two months or we’ll sue you in federal court.

“Coal shippers and railroads know that coal pollution of our waterways is a serious problem, and yet for years we’ve watched them point the finger about who pays to resolve the issue,” Cesia Kearns, organizer for The Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Exports campaign, said in a prepared statement. “The blame game stops here.”

But some companies involved in the suit openly questioned the group’s motivation and evidence Tuesday, offering little indication of an easy resolution.

BNSF Railway criticized the groups for threatening a “nuisance lawsuit without merit.” The company said in an emailed statement that the parties planning to sue should instead support BNSF’s efforts to make sure all coal loads are topped by dust suppression spray, which prevents the material from leaving cars.

Among the coal companies receiving notices of the suit were Ambre Energy, Peabody Energy, Cloud Peak Energy and Arch Coal, which between them own at least eight mines in Wyoming’s Powder River basin. Those eight mines produced more than 300 million tons of coal in 2012, about three-quarters of the state’s output.

Gillette-based Cloud Peak declined to directly address the lawsuit, but said that it’s leery of the attention coal dust is getting from some in the Pacific Northwest.

“We are concerned that the accusations cited in the press are part of the ongoing and well-funded efforts by anti-fossil fuel groups to prevent development of one of our country’s most abundant natural resources,” company spokesman Rick Curtsinger said in an emailed statement.

BNSF agreed and said that the suit would simply be “political grandstanding” motivated by recent efforts to export Wyoming and Montana coal to Asia using Northwest ports.

Rail and coal companies have recently moved toward establishing port terminals throughout Washington and Oregon to ship their coal across the Pacific. Four active proposed projects could eventually ship over 100 tons of Powder River Basin coal per year.

A spokeswoman for Ambre Energy, a company with mining and export interests, referred questions to the Alliance for Northwest Jobs and Exports, a lobbying group that represents several of the export projects.

Alliance spokeswoman Lauri Hennessey also questioned the suit and said it’s likely to have little effect on the movement toward coal exports.

“Make no mistake: this coal will find its way to Asia,” Hennessey wrote in an emailed statement. “It’s just a question of whether Northwest ports get the benefit or not.”

The conservation groups allege that many cars currently transporting coal westward lose dust and chunks of product along the way, polluting waterways like the Columbia River and Puget Sound. Numbers released by the Sierra Club claim that each BNSF rail car loses 500 pounds of dust per trip across Washington. The company runs about four 120-car coal trains per day.

Some who spoke during a teleconference Tuesday said they’ve collected large samples of the resource.

“It’s shocking what we’re discovering,” Brett VandenHeuvel, executive director of participating group Columbia Riverkeeper, said. “The problem is not just dust, but chunks of coal. I’ve picked up chunks the size of my fist.”

BNSF questioned whether the coal collected by the environmental groups was recently deposited in the area. The company also openly questioned whether the suing groups had proven the material was coal.

“BNSF has also safely hauled coal in Washington for decades,” the company said. “Yet despite the movement of so much coal over such a long period of time, we were not aware of a single coal dust complaint lodged with a state agency in the Northwest or with the railroad until the recent interest in coal export terminals.”

Kearns said during the call that testing was still under way on the samples and deferred questions about the testing to Sierra Club’s lawyers.

Requests for comment from Peabody Energy and Arch Coal were not returned.

Those planning the suit said they’d be satisfied if the companies would do more to prevent coal dust from reaching waterways. But unless that happens — an unlikely event — the issue will be settled in court.

“We expect the railroad to be good citizens and clean up the pollution that exists,” Samantha Lockhart, an organizer for Oregon-based Friends of the Columbia Gorge, said. “If they don’t in 60 days, we’ll file a lawsuit to do so.”

Reach energy reporter Adam Voge at 307-266-0561, or at adam.voge@trib.com. Read his blog at trib.com/news/opinion/blogs/boom or follow him on Twitter @vogeCST.

(10) comments

ken

What a "dog in the manger" bunch of home grown eco-terrorists these people have turned into. perhaps if their power stopped flowing to their comfortable little homes and their latte machines for a few days they would stop driving up the price of everyones power. Liberals, lawyers and litigation will destroy this Country if we continue to turn a blind eye to what is really going on here. Really??? coal dust polluting the wettest place on earth? That is absurd! I would like to see these squirrel squeezers file their lawsuit or run their propaganda website without electricity. Be careful what you wish for!

EasyTurbo

Umm, since all these environmentalists threatening to sue are in Oregon and Washington, they're not getting one kilowatt of electricity from coal, nor have they for decades up there. Nearly all hydroelectric in the Pacific NW.

Right

Actually it looks like less than a third of Portland's electricity comes from hydro electric. Most comes from coal or gas fired plants, most of which operate in the area

carlover

these are the kind of nuts who love wind energy even though there is no jobs with it, they will shut down anything they feel its hurting mother earth. i say send these nuts packing take their federal money away from them and see who is left standing. they will break the energy industry in wyoming, thats what they do. the stupid part is the government gives them the money to sue the government///

Hunter Green

They file lawsuits while enjoying the electricity the coal fired power plants provide......seem hypocritical to anyone else? These are also the people that whine about oil exploration while driving their fossil fuel powered vehicles.....

supercalifragilistic

You know?
Actually these nut case enviros have a legitimate case here "regarding blown light pieces", off the train. However, their case would need to back track to Northern Wyoming and Southern Montana.
That is where all the wind would be to "blow clean" all the dust they are talking/complaining about. But, I'm not sure the judge hearing this complaint would know the difference or understand wind erosion in the first place?

But if the Coal companies had their act together in the first place? They would buy huge, train car canvasses for the trip of each car. Then also, don't pass (personal) gas in front of any of them or another suit of methane would rise with that gas.
As the Coal Companies attempting to use a port that has always been hostage to envro terror in the Pacific North West. Also, be sure to have security tight enough to pass muster for any war zone our military has. Sad to say that environmentalists have become the enemy of free enterprise today.

Other than that, what is the difference between "street gangs and environmentalists" today?
Answer:
Street gangs make you pay - or - harm you if you don't?
Enviros use politicians to make you pay. - or - destroy your buildings, homes and trains if you don't?
Easy said: Gangs understand business ... enviros understand civil unrest

carlover

good call super.

BillyP

Sadly, the comments on here reaffirm the fact that the best those suffering from immaturity can do is to call others names when they don't get their way or when they feel that something they have will be taken away from them or when they are asked to act as an adult. No one is demanding that mining companies not be allowed to mine or transport their product (coal). They only ask that it is done in a responsible manner so that life sustaining water isn't polluted in the quest for the almighty dollar. :)

supercalifragilistic

BillyP, if I may?
That's exactly what the mining companies had planned.
Or, have you not kept up with the latest?
Environmentalists have a bad and in some cases a very bad reputation when it comes with dealing with businesses. Jobs and economic activity is not at the mainframe to which Robert Kennedy, Jr. was talking about, out in Oregan lately.

There is no dishonor in profits. There is only shame when commerce is manipulated by the courts through the Robert Kennedy, Jr.types.

geologist

“It’s shocking what we’re discovering,” Brett VandenHeuvel, executive director of participating group Columbia Riverkeeper, said. “The problem is not just dust, but chunks of coal. I’ve picked up chunks the size of my fist.”

Oh my goodness, a lump of coal the size of a fist? The environmental nightmare continues. I mean if I had gotten that in my Christmas stocking I would have been really disappointed.

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