A coalition of environmental organizations and BNSF Railway (BNSF) have reached an agreement in principle that will ensure that BNSF starts to clean up and prevent pollution from their coal trains.

The agreement, which is expected to be finalized as a court order in the next 60 days, will put on hold the ongoing trial until a final agreement is reached, and includes several requirements that will protect the health of Washington’s waterways:

A two-year study, funded by BNSF, into methods for covering coal trains.

$1 million for conservation or restoration projects in Washington.

Clean up and removal of coal and/or petcoke at specific areas near water bodies most affected by BNSF coal trains.

Plaintiffs put on testimony over the course of the weeklong trial that included multiple eyewitnesses to coal pollution and expert testimony that a million or more coal particles per second come off of each rail car. A coalition of environmental groups — Sierra Club, Puget Soundkeeper, Columbia Riverkeeper, Spokane Riverkeeper, RE Sources for Sustainable Communities, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and Friends of the Columbia Gorge — sued BNSF in 2013 under the federal Clean Water Act.

Environmental organizations praised the agreement in principle as a step toward protecting the health of Puget Sound, the Columbia River and other Washington state waterways:

“This is a win for Washington state residents who live, work, and play in the state’s waterways,” said Cesia Kearns, Deputy Regional Campaign Director for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign. “For decades, coal from BNSF trains has been polluting our rivers, lakes, and seas. This agreement recognizes that and holds BNSF accountable for its impact on our communities’ health and environment.”

“We are pleased that BNSF will seek to cover its dirty coal trains and clean up the pollution they’ve already spilled,” said Brett VandenHeuvel, Executive Director of Columbia Riverkeeper. “It’s the simple solution.The railroad is not above the law.”

“Once again, the Clean Water Act has made it possible for citizens to address major issues threatening Washington waters,” said Crina Hoyer, Executive Director of RE Sources for Sustainable Communities. “We are pleased that organizations across the state were successful in achieving our goal of forcing BNSF to clean up existing coal pollution, and to stop the ongoing pollution of our waterways. The coal car study is the first step toward seeing toxic cargo, like coal, sealed and covered for transport. This is a win for clean water and a win for our communities.”

“This agreement in principle sends a strong message that our public waters are not dumping grounds for toxic coal and other material, and it affirms the crucial role of citizen enforcement in protecting our waterways.” said Chris Wilke, Executive Director of Puget Soundkeeper Alliance. “Now, instead of externalizing their pollution as a cost of doing business, BNSF must take steps to repair the damage to our waterways and advance technologies to ensure that in the future, coal from their trains does not contaminate public resources.”

“We now have an agreement in principle with BNSF that should lead to an end to coal pollution in the Columbia River Gorge and cleanup of coal along the Columbia River,” said Michael Lang, conservation director for Friends of the Columbia Gorge. “Importantly, the court will retain jurisdiction to ensure that the terms of the agreement are enforced.”

The plaintiffs are represented by Charlie Tebbutt, Dan Snyder, and Sarah Matsumoto, The Law Offices of Charles M. Tebbutt, PC; Jessica Yarnall Loarie, Sierra Club; Andrea Rodgers, Western Environmental Law Center, David Pettit and Morgan Wyenn, Natural Resources Defense Council; and Nathan Baker, Friends of the Columbia Gorge.

Andrea Rodgers, Western Environmental Law Center, 206-696-2851,  
Cesia Kearns, Deputy Regional Campaign Director – Beyond Coal, Sierra Club, (503) 757-7546 Crina Hoyer, Executive Director, RE Sources for Sustainable Communities, (360) 223-8678, Rick Eichstaedt, Spokane Riverkeeper, (509) 464-7607, Katelyn Kinn, Puget Soundkeeper, (206) 297-7002, Lauren Goldberg, Columbia Riverkeeper, (541) 965-0985
Charlie Tebbutt, Law Offices of Charles M. Tebbutt, PC (541) 344-3505
Michael Lang, Friends of the Columbia Gorge, (503) 490-3979,

Read more about WELC’s work on coal trains in Washington state here.

stay informed and defend the west

Join us on the cutting edge of environmental advocacy!

Help protect the public lands, wildlife, and communities of the western U.S. by staying informed! We will respect your inbox by only sending the most important news. We will never share your email address and you can unsubscribe anytime. Thank you!

Thank you for caring about the West! We'll keep you informed.

Skip to content