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KUOW's environment beat brings you stories on the ongoing cleanup of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, alternative energy, the health of the Puget Sound, coal transportation and more. We're also partnered with several stations across the Northwest to bring you environmental news via EarthFix.

Feds: Coal Companies Must Pay To Suppress Dust From Trains

Flickr Photo/Aaron Hockley
A coal train makes its way through Eastern Washington.

A federal board has ruled that the coal companies operating in the Powder River Basin have to take certain measures to reduce the amount of dust that is escaping from coal train cars.The Surface Transportation Board, a federal body responsible for overseeing safety and business disputes in the transportation sector, ruled that coal companies must ensure that coal is loaded into the train cars in a ‘bread loaf’ shape to prevent the coal from spilling over the tops of the cars. The board also said that coal companies must apply one of five approved ‘topper agents,’ or sprays, on top of the coal cars to tamp down the dust and that they are responsible for the added cost of applying the toppers, which can cost $.10 to $.75 per ton of coal.

The ruling comes after more than three years of debate between the coal companies and the rail companies over the problem of coal dust escaping from trains.

“This approval is consistent with the agency’s past ruling that BNSF could require measures be taken to reduce coal dust,” said Courtney Wallace, a spokesperson with BNSF Railway. Wallace called the move an “important milestone” in ensuring that coal dust stays in rail cars.

EarthFix has reported that BNSF officials, in previous testimony before the Surface Transportation Board, said that more than 600 pounds of coal escapes from each train car. BNSF conducted studies on the five approved topper agents that will now be required and claims the sprays reduce coal dust escapement by 85 percent. That research has not been independently verified.

[asset-images[{"caption": "", "fid": "7980", "style": "card_280", "uri": "public://201312/coaldustgraphic.jpg", "attribution": "Credit EarthFix/Courtney Flatt"}]]“It’s interesting that BNSF is telling a federal board that coal dust spilling from trains is a big problem, while telling the public and city leaders not to worry about it,” said Brett VandenHeuval, executive director of Columbia Riverkeeper, an environmental group that opposes coal exports in the Northwest. “We’ve seen first hand that coal trains have a serious problem with spilling coal dust and chunks from uncovered cars, and spraying the cars is not fixing the problem.”

Columbia Riverkeeper, along with several other environmental groups, has filed a lawsuit against BNSF and the coal companies under the Clean Water Act. BNSF Railway called the lawsuit “meritless.”

One Washington politician is applauding the board’s ruling. US Representative Rick Larsen, whose district includes Whatcom County — the site of the largest proposed coal export terminal in North America — released a statement soon after the board’s ruling.

“We should make sure that coal producers and transporters use common sense precautions to protect communities from coal dust,” Larsen said. “I have heard from many of my constituents who are concerned about potential health effects from current coal train traffic.”

The new rules go into effect on January 12.