GREAT FALLS, Mont. — Christina Hughes regularly waits for trains to pass by on her way to work at the La Quinta Inn and Suites in Great Falls, Mont.
"I usually walk to work and a lot of the trains are coal trains, at least a couple of times a week," said Hughes. "There are days when it is really windy that it does look like some of the coal blows out, but I stand pretty far back from the track."
About 350 miles away, just north of the Montana-Wyoming border, operators at Cloud Peak Energy's Spring Creek Mine near Decker, Mont., are conducting a relatively new protocol, spraying a solvent on coal as it is loaded into each rail car leaving the mine.
Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway has required coal that will be transported in rail cars to be sprayed with a surfactant, a "topper agent," since 2011.
"It creates a 4-inch crust on the top of each load," said Keith Walters, technical services manager at the Spring Creek Mine.
Environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, argue that applying surfactant to loads of coal transported in open rail cars doesn't ensure that no coal and dust will escape from the uncovered cars. Rather, they argue, dust and even chunks of treated coal blow off rail cars and land in waterways and along the tracks.
The coal dust issue continues to be a key in the arguments of opponents to proposed coal export terminals on the West Coast.
The Sierra Club is the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit filed last summer against Burlington Northern Santa Fe, claiming that as the owner and operator of rail cars, the company is responsible for coal, coal dust and other pollutants from open rail cars loaded with coal that has made its way into waterways in Washington along the route from the Powder River Basin to the West Coast. The suit claims the railroad's operation violates the Clean Water Act.
The railway company argues the suit is only the latest attempt by the plaintiffs to stop the use of coal through litigation and legislation. The company filed to have the suit dismissed on jurisdictional issues. A status hearing on the suit is set for Dec. 10.
Outside of court, the mine and the railway say the newer surfactant application process is working, reducing the amount of coal dust that escapes by 85%, when compared with loads not treated by surfactants.
Falling by the wayside
Coal dust loss is an issue where the cars are loaded, at mines, and becomes much less of a problem the farther the loaded cars travel, according to the rail company. As loaded rail cars travel, coal dust particles shift, or sift, their way to the bottom of the rail car as the car is shaken and jostled as it comes down the tracks, according to a company document, "Coal Dust Facts."
Groups such as the Sierra Club insist that is not the case. Their lawsuit says that "coal pollutant discharges occur despite the use of topping agents" and that the "topping agents, surfactants and suppressants themselves are pollutants."
"Our members report finding coal in the waterways along the routes where coal trains travel," said Jessica Yarnell Loarie, an attorney for the Sierra Club.
"Our members are reporting seeing evidence of coal discharge where coal is shipped," Yarnell Loarie said. "I think the people in Washington are more vocal and have a heightened awareness of it because of the prospect of additional coal trains coming through the state."
The potential increase in coal-train traffic to the West Coast is tied to proposed coal export terminals there.
SSA Marine is proposing the Gateway Pacific Terminal in Cherry Point, Wash., and Millennium Bulk Terminals in Longview, Wash. Coal mining companies, including Cloud Peak Energy, have contracts to ship from those facilities if they are built. Both facilities are the target of protests, including from the Lummi Indian Tribe. The Lummi Nation Reservation is near Cherry Point, Wash.
Right now, Powder River Basin coal sold to export markets in Asia — typically about a quarter of production for Spring Creek Mine — is shipped by train through Washington state to Canada to export facilities there. Most of the other three-quarters of Spring Creek's production is sold to domestic coal plants.
Cloud Peak Energy, which owns Spring Creek, exports now from Westshore Terminals facility in British Columbia, about 20 miles south of downtown Vancouver, just north of the U.S. border. It's the largest coal export facility in Canada.
BNSF's spokeswoman Courtney Wallace said the Sierra Club lawsuit has no merit.
"It was filed to drive headlines," she said. "Prior to the filing of this lawsuit, we are aware of no complaints about coal dust received by us or by state agencies where we operate trains."
Keep a low profile
The coal dust issue was raised by BNSF Railway in 2005 over concerns about track maintenance near coal mine sites. Coal dust deposits on BNSF's lines in and near the Powder River Basin required costly accelerated maintenance, the railroad company said.
BNSF, along with the Union Pacific Railroad Co., conducted track-side air monitoring tests of open rail cars loaded with coal and compared those with the results with air tests along tracks when the coal in the rail cars was treated with surfactant. The results of the 2010 "Super Trial" showed reductions in the quantity of coal dust detection of 75 percent to 93 percent.
Since October 2011, BNSF has required coal shippers to load coal in a low profile, a bread loaf shape, and apply one of five approved topper agents, the surfactant. Wallace said the approved topping agents are nontoxic and nonhazardous.
The loading operation is entirely mechanical and controlled by computers, with the operator stationed inside a control room that is about level with the top of passing rail cars. Coal is poured into the cars from above and a sprayer applies the surfactant as the coal chute drags across the top of the load to create the required "loaf" profile.
No dust complaints
About 70 miles northwest of the mine at Crow Agency on the Crow Indian Reservation, trains loaded with Power River Basin coal roll through the town daily. The tracks bisect the town, with a HUD housing project — where several generations often live, overcrowded, in small, run-down homes designed for families of four— and a shuttered carpet mill on the west side and the tribal offices, Little Big Horn College and the largest building in town, the Indian Health Services hospital and clinic, on the east side.
"I wish some of that coal was coming from our reservation," said Dana Wilson, vice chairman of the Apsaalooke Nation, sitting in the tribe's legal office recently.
Cloud Peak Energy and the tribe have an agreement for the Big Metal Project, which has the potential to mine 1.4 billion tons of coal that is west of Cloud Peak's current operations.
Wilson, who worked at Absaloke Mine for 15 years 20 years ago, said a Cloud Peak mine on the Crow Reservation will provide something desperately needed for the poverty-plagued nation — jobs.
The possibility of an increase in coal dust in town doesn't even register on his list of things to be concerned about.
"We have trains through here every day, and the only complaint I'm aware of is when they come through at 3 and 4 a.m. and wake people up," Wilson said. "I've never heard a complaint about dust."