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According to lawsuit, open-top coal cars spill toxic dust and water, especially on rough track and steep grades.Jeff Vinnick/The Globe and Mail

California-based Sierra Club has filed a lawsuit against BNSF Railway, Peabody Energy and several other coal producers alleging that rail cars filled with coal are polluting waterways in Washington state.

The suit, filed on June 5, alleges the defendants have been discharging pollutants including coal, coal dust and coal-contaminated water into dozens of rivers and lakes in Washington for years while moving coal by rail through the state.

The discharges come through holes in the bottoms and sides of rail cars and spill from the open tops of rail cars, and are especially severe when trains pass over rough tracks or make steep climbs or descents, the suit alleges.

The court action, filed in the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington, comes amid controversy over proposals for new or expanded coal export facilities in the western United States and British Columbia.

A spokesman for BNSF Railway – which hauls coal from the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana and is owned by Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Inc. – called the suit a publicity stunt.

"Sierra Club's lawsuit is meritless and nothing more than a publicity stunt meant to stop the permitting of multi-commodity export terminals in the Pacific Northwest, BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas said by e-mail.

"BNSF has safely hauled coal in Washington for decades, and is committed to preventing coal dust from escaping while in transit."

The lawsuit focuses primarily on coal mined in the Powder River Basin and then shipped by rail through Washington and then to a coal-fired plant in the state or on to Canada.

A spokeswoman for Peabody, which produces more than 140 million tons of coal each year from Powder River, said in an emailed statement that the company would defend itself against the lawsuit.

Another defendant, Cloud Peak Energy – which is headquartered in Wyoming and operates three mines in the Powder River Basin – defended its environmental and safety record and questioned the motives of those who filed the lawsuit.

"We are concerned that these accusations are part of the ongoing, well-funded efforts by anti-fossil-fuel groups to use litigation, media campaigns and other tactics to prevent development of one of our country's most abundant natural resources," the company said.

The suit does not name Canadian defendants, but could affect coal issues here, Sierra Club spokeswoman Krista Collard said on Thursday.

"It does definitely have implications for the trains that are going to Canada, we think," Ms. Collard said. "What we are saying is they need to stop polluting waterways, period – however they need to do that. They are breaking the law."

The lawsuit relies on provisions of the Clean Water Act.

In B.C., several coal expansion projects have been proposed or are under way.

Earlier this week, speakers at the annual general meeting of Port Metro Vancouver voiced concerns about a proposal at Fraser Surrey Docks to bring in coal from the Powder River Basin to be loaded onto barges and towed down the Fraser River to Texada Island. From there, it would be transferred to deep-sea ships for export.

The current proposal calls for up to four million tonnes a year, but shipments could increase to eight million tonnes a year.

Any increase beyond four million tonnes a year would be subject to a new review by Port Metro Vancouver.