Groups Urge EPA to Regulate Coal Pollution from Uncovered Rail Cars

Today SF Baykeeper, Sierra Club, Public Justice, and several other environmental and public health organizations filed a petition for rulemaking with the EPA, calling upon the agency to stop harmful coal pollution from open-top trains carrying coal by requiring coal train operators to obtain a permit for their water pollution.

Under the Clean Water Act, EPA has the authority to regulate pollution from point sources, including open-top railcars. Today’s filed petition presents evidence that harmful coal pollution can escape from open-top coal trains in transit, polluting the surrounding communities, air, and water with heavy metals and toxic chemicals including arsenic, cadmium, chromium, and mercury. 

Exposure to coal dust from the trains can increase the risk of bronchitis, asthma, heart disease, and other serious health issues. Coal dust and particles can also contaminate drinking water and aquatic life, threatening public health and the livelihood of fishing communities. Despite the prevalence of coal dust across the United States, coal pollution from uncovered rail cars is largely unregulated, and the petition calls upon EPA to address this loophole. 

In addition to Baykeeper, groups joining the petition include: Appalachian Mountain Advocates, Appalachian Voices, Columbia Riverkeeper, Montana Environmental Information Center, Natural Resources Defense Council, New Virginia Majority, Northern Plains Resource Council, Public Justice, Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, the Sierra Club, South Baltimore Community Land Trust, Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards, Spokane Riverkeeper, Sunflower Alliance, and Yellowstone Bend Citizens Council.

In response, petitioners and supporters released the following statements:

“I was on patrol on the Baykeeper boat many years ago when we spotted huge black piles of coal at the Richmond export terminal,” said San Francisco Baykeeper Executive Director Sejal Choksi-Chugh. “Coal particles were falling through the dock and off the conveyor system into the Bay, and the toxic dust was drifting into nearby neighborhoods. We sued the facility and forced them to clean up, but we couldn’t walk away, because coal trains are still spreading dirty pollutants on their routes to the Bay Area and in Richmond. There’s absolutely no excuse for polluting the Bay or for poisoning people. The residents of Richmond shouldn’t be forced to breathe in toxic pollution. It’s time for us to band together with our allies across the country on this issue and demand justice.”

“As an organization that stands for meeting the immediate need of the families of today and strives to create a just and healthy future for the families of tomorrow, it is imperative that the harmful effects of coal dust and coal ash are addressed now,” said New Virginia Majority Lead Organizer Monét Johnson. “As an agency that is working to protect its citizens, it is the Environmental Protection Agency’s duty to do everything possible to protect their most vulnerable populations from this harmful form of pollution, make a statement that they will not prioritize industry over integrity, and put an end to injustice.”  

“As a proud seventh-generation Appalachian, my kin and I have long been witness to the impact of coal dust pollution on our folks, our communities, and our environment,” said Lead Organizer at Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards Jess Mullins Fullen. “The unchecked release of toxic coal dust, making thriving folks ill and the sick even sicker, not only threatens our health but also undermines the beauty and rich ecology of our region. The EPA has been tasked to protect the natural resilience of our hills and hollers. It is their job to hold coal train operators accountable for this pollution to ensure a safer, cleaner future for Appalachian communities and generations to come.”

“It’s outrageous that we are still choosing to allow coal to be shipped in uncovered train cars just feet from our homes, schools and water in communities like mine in South Baltimore, an area with some of the worst health outcomes in the state,” said Carlos Sanchez, environmental justice organizer with the South Baltimore Community Land Trust. “Up to 14 million tons of coal a year is allowed to travel over the Patapsco River on its way to the CSX coal terminal in Curtis Bay. Following decades of residents complaining about dark dust on their homes and environment alongside the rail line, the terminal exploded in 2021, spreading hazardous coal dust for miles. The explosion should be a wakeup call–EPA must set stronger protections, including covering coal transported by rail, to protect our health and environment.”

“Despite actions currently undertaken by the coal companies, coal continues to spill into critical waterways such as the Clinch River impacting ecosystems and communities during railroad transport,” said volunteer environmental monitor with Appalachian Voices in Tennessee and Virginia Dan Firth. “The only way to effectively eliminate coal discharges and their adverse impacts to the environment and communities during transportation is for loads of coal to be covered.”

“Montana’s coal trains go through our most populous towns and are located along rivers. As a headwaters state, impacts to Montana’s waters can impact the health of ecosystems and communities in many downstream states,” said Director of Policy and Legislative Affairs for the Montana Environmental Information Center Anne Hedges. “In recent years numerous rail disasters have made headlines, including a coal train derailment into a major river, but the dust from passing coal trains causes air and water pollution day-in and day-out. EPA needs to take this issue seriously and do what it can to protect people’s health and our waters.”

“I’ve spent years trying to educate people in the Pacific Northwest about the dangers of coal trains. Trains in our area travel along river corridors where their dust harms public health and eventually finds its way into our waters,” said former miner, smokejumper, film producer, and current president of Montana Elders for a Liveable Tomorrow (MELT) Harold Hoem. “It’s past time for EPA to address this issue and find a way to protect the public and our environment from the dangers posed by coal dust from trains that move through our communities and along our rivers.”

“We had a storage unit near the tracks in Missoula, and black dust crept into the unit–we had to wipe it off the furniture and boxes,” said MELT leader Jan Hoem. “Renters told us the dust entered their homes. Surfactants they spray onto coal to keep the dust down don’t last.  At dusk if you drive into the sun next to a coal train, the near-horizontal light illuminates the coal dust coming off the train. I know the effects of coal dust on health, and they’re not good. It’s past time the EPA takes action on coal dust and holds coal train operators accountable for their pollution.”

“Particulate matter, of which coal dust is one type, is associated with a wide range of adverse health effects, from fetal impacts and adverse birth outcomes to more frequent asthma attacks to heart attacks and strokes,” said Sierra Club volunteer and Red Lodge, Montana resident Dr. Robert Byron. “Even low levels of particulate matter pollution can cause those impacts, and EPA must do everything in its power to reduce harm from coal dust in our communities.”

“Unburned coal and coal dust are found everywhere coal trains travel, from coal export terminals in Norfolk, Va. to the beaches of the Puget Sound,” said Managing Attorney for Sierra Club’s Environmental Law Program Aaron Isherwood. “Yet loopholes in the Clean Water Act give coal train operators a free pass to pollute, allowing them to send open-top rail cars filled with harmful coal through communities and over waterways, uncovered and unpermitted. EPA must fulfill their obligation to protect human health and the environment by requiring coal train operators obtain adequate permits to better regulate, measure, and mitigate their water pollution, as is standard practice across most industries.” 

“For years, we’ve seen how the coal industry has operated with impunity, polluting the environment and surrounding communities with harmful coal dust,” said Public Justice Environmental Enforcement Project Senior Attorney Dan Snyder. “We’re proud to join the Sierra Club and our other environmental allies in urging the U.S. EPA to do its job and force coal train operators to clean up their act.”