The Sierra Club filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday against Burlington Northern Santa Fe, claiming tons of coal dust blows off the company's trains into Puget Sound and Washington rivers, including the Columbia.
Courtney Wallace, a spokeswoman for the railroad, called the lawsuit "meritless."
The lawsuit, filed in Seattle, doesn't specifically mention any problems in the Mid-Columbia, but Sierra Club spokeswoman Krista Collard said Tri-City residents have reason for concern.
"If you have rail lines that go along the waterways, you're probably at risk," Collard told the Herald.
Never miss a local story.
The Sierra Club plans to file a similar lawsuit in the Eastern District of Washington -- which includes Richland, Yakima and Spokane -- at a later date, according to a news release.
The railway sends an average of four trains, or 480 open-top rail cars, through the state each day, carrying coal from mines in Montana and Wyoming, according to The Associated Press. The trains go to Canada or to Centralia, the site of the only remaining coal-fired power plant in Washington.
The number of trains could increase significantly under pending proposals for three coal export terminals in Washington and Oregon.
The Sierra Club claims that the average train loses between 60,000 to 420,000 pounds of coal per trip.
The lawsuit follows a notice of violations sent to the railroad in April from the Sierra Club, Puget SoundKeeper, Columbia Riverkeeper, RE Sources for Sustainable Communities and Friends of the Columbia Gorge.
BNSF's Wallace said coal trains do run through Pasco, but most of the coal dust lost on the trip from the Powder River Basin in southeast Montana and northeast Wyoming blows away long before it reaches Washington. And, while the cars are uncovered, the company takes strides to keep dust from blowing away by loading it in a "bread loaf" shape and then using a topping agent that forms a crust over the coal.
"We have hauled coal for decades," Wallace said. "Until the recent interest in coal export terminals, we are not aware of a single complaint filed with any clean air agency or the railroad."
The railroad has a vested interest to avoid allowing dust to blow out of the rail cars, because it can damage trains and tracks, she said.
BNSF employs just less than 100 people at a Pasco rail yard and local support facilities, and invests $100 million in the state each year, Wallace said.
While the new coal terminals would add traffic to the rail lines, Wallace said that would happen anyway because of agricultural demand and other factors. She said the company always works with communities to address issues caused by rail traffic.
"Trains do both imports and exports," she said. "We're the economic engine that helps drive traffic here in Washington."
Pasco city assessments have found that within the next decade, increased coal demands could lead to 32 coal trains per day coming through the city, which could cause five hours of delays.