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Feds say coal companies must take steps to minimize coal blowing off train cars

by: KATIE CAMPBELL/EARTHFIX - A federal board has ruled that coal companies are responsible for controling dust coming off train cars.A federal board has ruled that 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 spokesman with BNSF Railway. Wallace called the move an “important milestone” in ensuring that coal dust stays in rail cars.

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.

“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.”

The new rules go into effect on January 12.