Taking Big Coal to Court

We are taking a stand against dirty coal pollution in our river.

On June 5, 2013, Columbia Riverkeeper and allies filed a Clean Water Act lawsuit to stop toxic coal discharges from trains into Northwest waterways.

Watch this 2 minute video of Riverkeeper’s Brett VandenHeuvel revealing illegal coal pollution in the Columbia:


We took to the water this winter to investigate how much coal pollutes our river. Riverkeeper and allies documented significant amounts of coal pollution along the tracks and in the water.

We are holding Big Coal and the rail company Burlington Northern Santa Fe accountable for the illegal discharge of coal from trains traveling through the Columbia River Gorge and beyond.

Coal is toxic. It contains heavy metals that pollute our water and harm aquatic life. Coal trains can lose 500 pounds of coal from each car, according to Burlington Northern’s own calculations. Riverkeeper and allies documented significant amounts of coal pollution along the the tracks and in the water.

The Clean Water Act is a powerful tool that allows citizens to stop illegal pollution. The lawsuit filed today by Riverkeeper, Sierra Club, Friends of the Columbia Gorge, Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, North Sound Baykeeper (RE Sources for Sustainable Communities), Spokane Riverkeeper, and NRDC against Big Coal and Burlington Northern is a step towards curbing the amount of toxic contaminants currently entering our rivers, our communities, and our lungs.

What’s next?

We filed a complaint with the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington. We expect an answer from the defendants within the next two months. Get the latest on this important legal case by joining the Columbia Riverkeeper mailing list.  

How can I help?

Share this big news by posting our revealing 2 minute video on your Facebook and Twitter accounts. For Twitter users: #NoCoalExport

How does coal get in the river?

From this video, it is not difficult to see how the overfilled coal cars spill coal on windy days. The coal protrudes above the rim of the uncovered coal cars. In addition, it is likely that coal leaks out the bottom of the cars because there are “weep holes” that allow water to drain. In many places, the trains travel right along the Columbia River and cross dozens of  tributaries on trestles.  

How many coal trains are currently in the Gorge?

We don’t know exactly, but the estimate is 2 or 3 coal trains per day. The trains are taking coal to the coal-fired power plant in Centralia and to Canadian Ports for export.

How will the current coal export proposals affect coal pollution in the Gorge?

If built, the proposed export terminals will bring up to 20 new trains full of coal (and 20 empty trains) through the Gorge every day. This would create stunning impacts from coal and diesel pollution, blocked traffic, noise and dust in communities, and derailments.


Read the complaint filed in the lawsuit.

Read the press release about this lawsuit.

See the April 2, 2013 60-day notice of intent to sue.


Riverkeeper is represented by the Law Offices of Charles M. Tebbutt, P.C. of Eugene, Oregon and Andrea Rodgers Harris of Seattle, Washington.

Riverkeeper is a proud member of the Power Past Coal Coalition, an ever-growing alliance of health, environmental, businesses, clean-energy, faith, and community groups working to stop coal export off the West Coast.

Riverkkeeper extends a great thanks to Carl Jameson and Craftmaster Productions for video production services.


In the News:

Sierra Club sues over coal dust from uncovered trains in Columbia River gorge. Oregonlive. June 5, 2013.

Environmental Groups Sue Railway, Others For Dumping Coal. EarthFix. June 5, 2013.

Environmental Groups Sue Railway And Coal Companies For Clean Water Act Violations. Northwest Public Radio. June 5, 2013.

Sierra Club sues railroad over coal dust from trains. KOMO News. June 5, 2013.

Taking Big Coal to Court. EcoWatch. June 5, 2013.

Environmental groups file suit against coal shippers. Portland Tribune. June 5, 2013.

In from the coal: Sierra Club files new dust suit. Sustainable Business Oregon. June 5, 2013.

Sierra Club files coal dust suit to 'block exports'. Wyoming Business Report. June 6, 2013.

Environmental groups sue BNSF Railways and coal producers. Wyoming Public Media. June 5, 2013.

Sierra Club sues railway, coal producers, claiming they pollute waterways. The Globe and Mail. June 6, 2013.

Suit says coal dust hurts state. The News Tribune. June 6 ,2013.

Environmental groups sue BNSF, coal companies for dust discharges into waterways. The Bellingham Herald. June 5,2013.

Sierra Club sues BNSF over coal dust from trains. The Seattle Times. June 5, 2013.

Berkshire’s BNSF Violated Water Act, Sierra Club Says. Bloomberg. June 5, 2013.

Sierra Club Sues BNSF Over Coal Spillage From Railcars. Law 360. June 5, 2013.