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.”