Lake Pend Oreille Waterkeeper (LPOW) suspected that coal was escaping from open rail cars travelling over and adjacent to Lake Pend Oreille and the Pend Oreille River and ending up in the water. Their recent monitoring efforts have confirmed their hunch. LPOW initiated a collection effort in January to document coal loss from passing trains in response to varying degrees of skepticism in the community.
LPOW recruited volunteers to patrol different areas of shoreline along Lake Pend Oreille and the Pend Oreille River during the deep winter drawdown to collect coal, or what appeared to be coal, below the ordinary high water mark, which is normally immersed in water at full summer pool. Collection efforts began in late January and ended in May when the rising waters made it too difficult to patrol. Volunteers endured bitter winter and early spring conditions as they GPS and photo-documented incidents of coal loss next to the tracks that run through the Pack River Delta, Morton Slough and along Dog Beach. Volunteers bagged the samples and returned them to LPOW for chemical analysis.
The samples were sent to a certified environmental analytical laboratory that specializes in coal, oil and gas analysis. Fourteen samples, weighing approximately 40 pounds together, were analyzed for moisture content, volatile matter, fixed carbon, ash, and sulfur content. The results for 12 out of the 14 samples were consistent with sub-bituminous coal, the type of coal that is mined and transported from the Powder River Basin (PRB) in Montana and Wyoming. The majority of coal was recovered from the shoreline of Dog Beach which runs parallel to the BNSF-operated tracks that span the width of the Pend Oreille River. “We’re not surprised by the laboratory results in the slightest. When coal is shipped in open rail cars, it’s bound to happen”, said Williamson, Executive Director of Lake Pend Oreille Waterkeeper.
BNSF adopted a Coal Loading Rule in 2011 that requires all shippers loading coal at Montana and Wyoming mines to load cars in such a way that ensures coal dust loss in transit is reduced by at least 85%. This includes the application of an approved topper agent, otherwise referred to as a surfactant. However, BNSF does not enforce the rule or enact a penalty for non-compliance. Rather, according to Steve Bobb, BNSF's executive vice president and chief marketing officer, he hopes shippers will "do the right thing" and apply the surfactants (according to a WUSA9 news report). The long-term effectiveness of surfactants on dust suppression outside the immediate mining areas has also come under scrutiny. Based on LPOW’s investigation, surfactants do not appear to be effective at preventing the loss of coal itself.
According to Williamson, LPOW intends to continue to monitor coal loss and its potential impact on water quality with the help of volunteers. “Multiple reports indicate that exposure of unburned coal to natural aquatic resources negatively impacts water quality and ecosystem function. It’s extremely important for us to better understand how much coal is entering our waterways and the consequences of this coal loss on Lake Pend Oreille and the Pend Oreille River”, said Williamson. LPOW also intends on spearheading their own water quality study to more accurately determine what compounds are leached from coal upon exposure to lake and river water and in what concentrations over time. Of particular concern are toxins such as mercury, lead and arsenic, which can be harmful even at low concentrations. “There are too many unanswered questions about why coal is bad for the health of our waterways and we intend to provide answers that are grounded in sound science rather than speculation”, said Williamson.
For more info and to get involved, please visit LPOW's coal page.