The group says the train and rail cars are point sources of pollution, and that the companies should have gotten a permit under federal law for such discharges. They fear that increased rail traffic, if the proposed port projects are built, will worsen the problem.
Cesia Kearns, a campaign representative with The Sierra Club, says the groups have tested some of the evidence collected in various waterways throughout Washington and are in the process of testing more. She declined immediately to say what those lab results revealed.
Matt Ryan, a windsurfer who lives in Underwood along the Columbia River Gorge, said he has been showered by coal chunks and coal dust when trains roll by. "It seems pretty obvious that it comes off the coal trains. There are no covers on these cars and they're exposed to so much wind for such a long time."
It's unclear what the health or environmental impacts are from exposure to coal dust and contamination. The issue has not been well-studied, said Eric de Place, a policy director with Sightline Institute, a Seattle think-tank, who spoke to reporters on the conference call. "Coal dust contamination and pollution is a classic example of something we don't understand might hurt us," he said.Dr. Roger McCLellan, a past chairman of the Environmental Protection Agency's clean air scientific advisory committee, said in a statement that "the mere presence of coal by a railroad track or in the water is not a health hazard." He added: "Coal has been traveling through the Northwest by rail for over 40 years. Claiming that finding a piece of coal on the ground or in the water leads to a health or environment risk violates one of the basic tenets of toxicology." VandenHeuvel said the intent of the notice to BNSF and coal companies is ultimately to get them "to stop discharging pollutants into the water way."