September 30, 2023

Environmental groups push to clamp down on coal dust from trains


Sierra Club and other environmental groups want the Environmental Protection Agency to compel freight railroads to curb the coal dust that flies off of open-top rail cars. The groups argue that heavy metals and chemicals such as arsenic, cadmium, chromium and mercury can potentially disperse from the coal trains, thus harming the local environments where trains pass through.

“There are hundreds of thousands of uncovered coal cars traveling across the United States at any given time. These coal cars travel great distances, crossing and traveling adjacent to an untold number of streams, rivers, and navigable waters that make up the American landscape,” the environmental group said in a Tuesday petition to EPA.

“The coal industry and the railroad industry readily acknowledge that their coal cars lose coal while undertaking that journey. Some of that coal is lost not to land, but directly to water. Such point source discharges to the Nation’s waterways are presently unregulated, adding harmful PAHs [polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons], metals, and other coal pollutants to aquatic ecosystems,” the groups continued.

To reduce or prevent coal dust from traveling rail cars, the groups have filed a rulemaking petition with EPA to require coal train operators to obtain a permit under the Clean Water Act’s (CWA) national pollutant discharge elimination system (NPDES). 

The environmental groups signing the petition are the Sierra Club, Appalachian Mountain Advocates, Public Justice, Appalachian Voices, Columbia Riverkeeper, Montana Environmental Information Center, Natural Resources Defense Council, New Virginia Majority, Northern Plains Resource Council, Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, San Francisco Baykeeper, South Baltimore Community Land Trust, Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards, Spokane Riverkeeper, Sunflower Alliance and Yellowstone Bend Citizens Council.

The groups say a rulemaking from the EPA addresses the issue that the groups had encountered in 2020, when the Surface Transportation Board ruled that such a permit requirement cannot be done on a state-by-state basis because that would conflict with the Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act.

“The STB’s decision leaves a substantial gap in regulators’ jurisdiction over surface water discharges under the CWA. Unless EPA steps in to fill that gap, the nation’s waterways and those that use them will be injured by the significant harmful effects of pollution discharges from those rail cars. … Unburned coal and coal particles contaminate aquatic environments with harmful metals, chemicals, and other pollutants and adversely affect aquatic life,” the groups said.

“Montana’s coal trains go through our most populous towns and are located along rivers. As a headwaters state, impacts to Montana’s waters can impact the health of ecosystems and communities in many downstream states,” said Anne Hedges, director of policy and legislative affairs for the Montana Environmental Information Center. “In recent years numerous rail disasters have made headlines, including a coal train derailment into a major river, but the dust from passing coal trains causes air and water pollution day-in and day-out. EPA needs to take this issue seriously and do what it can to protect people’s health and our waters.”

The groups say coal discharges coming from trains have been unregulated, resulting in areas where coal dust has polluted navigable waters. Even Union Pacific and BNSF have studied the issue, noting that coal was “contaminating” the ballast underneath the tracks, the groups said in their filing, with BNSF going so far as to seek a tariff on coal shippers. That proceeding was resolved before STB, according to the groups.

The filing also cited several places where coal discharge could be seen, such as near Lambert’s Point in Virginia and along the Spokane and Columbia rivers in Washington. These are areas where coal heads to the ports for export. 

“Unburned coal and coal dust are found everywhere coal trains travel, from coal export terminals in Norfolk, Va. to the beaches of the Puget Sound,” Aaron Isherwood, managing attorney for Sierra Club’s Environmental Law Program, said in a Tuesday news release. “Yet loopholes in the Clean Water Act give coal train operators a free pass to pollute, allowing them to send open-top rail cars filled with harmful coal through communities and over waterways, uncovered and unpermitted. EPA must fulfill their obligation to protect human health and the environment by requiring coal train operators obtain adequate permits to better regulate, measure, and mitigate their water pollution, as is standard practice across most industries.” 

Subscribe to FreightWaves’ e-newsletters and get the latest insights on freight right in your inbox.

Click here for more FreightWaves articles by Joanna Marsh.


The second annual F3: Future of Freight Festival will be held in Chattanooga, “The Scenic City,” this November. F3 combines innovation and entertainment — featuring live demos, industry experts discussing freight market trends for 2024, afternoon networking events, and Grammy Award-winning musicians performing in the evenings amidst the cool Appalachian fall weather.

Source link
In this article:
Share on social media: