Coal Trains: Dust Pollution is a Real Problem

Photo of fugitive train-sourced coal ash dust located a few feet from the James River, a public walking trail, parkland, homes and businesses…a daily routine affecting families and drinking water sources of millions of Virginians.

If you live, work or commute along the Anacostia, Potomac, Susquehanna or James Rivers, you have probably seen train cars filled to overflowing with coal traveling alongside these waterways. These railcars are typically not covered, so the dust flows freely into the air as they make their way down the rail line. In fact, an average rail car loses about 500 lbs. of coal dust — dust that contains mercury, arsenic, uranium and other toxins harmful to human health and wildlife (including fish and aquatic life in rivers adjacent to the train tracks). In fact, our Riverkeepers have even found chunks of coal along river banks and in rivers. In November 2007, six cars of coal derailed into the Anacostia River.

Waterkeepers in Washington State scored a big win in federal court recently on the issue of pollutants from coal trains. In a case (Sierra Club Inc. et al. v. BNSF Railway et al.), the railway company admitted that an average of 60,000 lbs. of coal can be lost from each 120-car train.The court ruled that these trains are “point sources” of pollution under the Clean Water Act. This means that the rail company can be held liable for coal discharged directly into navigable waters. Not only did the Court find that railway companies can be liable for coal discharged into nearby waterways, but that Waterkeepers in the state had the legal ability to sue the railway company for such discharges.

The full trial is currently underway and Waterkeepers Chesapeake will closely follow this trial as a ruling against the train company could have profound implications for rail transport of coal in the Chesapeake region.