Is This Warren Buffett-Owned Railway Polluting Water?

The Sierra Club has filed a complaint against Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (NYSE:BRK-A) (NYSE:BRK-B)owned railway BNSF Railway Co., accusing the coal shipper of dumping coal into Pudget Sound and other waterways in violation of the Clean Water Act.

The Sierra Club is one of the oldest and most influential environmental groups in the U.S. The group filed a complaint in federal court in Seattle saying that coal chunks and coal dust are being dumped into water around Seattle and throughout the state of Washington. They are seeking a court order to prohibit the rail company from carrying coal in uncovered railway cars and are asking the company to pay damages. The group is also suing five other coal shipping railway companies in the suit.

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As the coal industry in the Pacific Northwest continues to grow, environmental groups worry the pollution will only get worse. Developers are planning to build three train-fed export terminals, two in Washington and one in Boardman, to ship coal from Wyoming and Montana to Asia. Coal developers want to increase coal exports in the U.S., using mile-long uncovered trains to cart coal to shipping points. They say the investment will bring big profits and create jobs.

The Sierra Club performed a laboratory test of debris found along the tracks and in the Columbia River. Results confirmed that the pollution is being caused by coal. If the new export terminals are approved, it could add about 20 train trips through the affected region per day. The suit is focusing on four trips made a day by trains with open cars past Washington’s side of the Columbia River to a coal power plant in Centralia and a shipping point in British Columbia.

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BNSF, which was purchased by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway in 2010, responded by saying that the company has cracked down on coal dust emissions from trains in recent years. Officials from the railway say that most of the estimated 500 pounds of coal dust lost an average from each open car occurs right outside the mine. The company has started spraying sticky surfactants to keep dust down and loading coal into railway cars in a “bread loaf” shape that helps reduce the coal dust lost.

If the environmental group wins the suit, it would require mile-plus, uncovered trains to get Clean Water Act permits.

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