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INTERVIEW — Bart Mihailovich 

The Spokane Riverkeeper on the effect of coal trains

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In May, the Spokane Riverkeeper and the National Resources Defense Council filed a complaint against Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad Co. and a group of coal companies, claiming coal is falling from rail cars into the Spokane River at Hangman Creek, violating the Clean Water Act.

On the West Side, the Sierra Club and a group of waterkeepers are fighting the same issue and filed a lawsuit earlier this month. Bart Mihailovich, the Spokane Riverkeeper, says Spokane groups are willing to pursue a suit of their own if they don’t receive a response from the coal companies. We sat down with Mihailovich to talk about what’s at stake.

INLANDER: When did this become a real problem?

MIHAILOVICH: I was seeing news reports from Seattle and Portland of groups going out and finding piles of coal in the water and along the waterways. Once I saw all these pictures and images coming out of all this coal found in the waterways, [I thought]: ‘Well, surely there are places in Spokane and along the Spokane River and at Hangman Creek where the trains are crossing — so I gotta go look myself.’ The first time I went out, I went to three locations where the trains cross and I found pieces of coal in the water or at the ordinary high water mark, which is important because it means if the river were to rise, it would be in the water. From there on, I put together a little monitoring program and had volunteers going out almost every day for about a month, and every time I was getting updates from them, they were finding coal.

What can the railways do to prevent losing so much coal during transport?

They allege that they spray a chemical surfactant over the tops of the train cars to prevent coal from going out and dust from blowing off. Well, there are videos that show that’s not happening — we have evidence in the river that shows that’s not happening — so that’s clearly not working. They could cover it, I would think. I’m certainly not a railroad expert, but one would think that — you see trains coming through town that have potatoes or grain or whatever and those are covered, so why not cover these?

What are coal’s supporters saying?

Overall, what we’re hearing is coal exporting will create jobs for the state of Washington. You could make that case in Bellingham or Longview or other communities where they’re proposing export facilities. It doesn’t create jobs for Spokane. There’s that. But really, I haven’t heard a good argument; I haven’t heard anyone out there say, ‘Coal in the river is not a problem.’

Read an extended version of this interview here.

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