Golden Gate University Environmental Law Journal


Coal trains are known as “black snakes.” The name aptly describes the miles of uncovered rail cars bearing the black cargo as they slither along the tracks. During the journey from coal mines to their final destinations, coal trains shed plumes of coal dust from the tops of the train cars. As the dust spews from the rail cars, it fills the surrounding air with harmful substances like mercury, lead, cadmium, arsenic, manganese, beryllium, and chromium. When the dust settles, these substances are deposited in soil and water, harming plant, animal, and marine life. Environmental consequences from coal dust are also rooted in railroad safety concerns. Coal dust accumulation in the ballast can destabilize the tracks and contribute to derailments. Derailments impact the environment because the overturned train can spill locomotive fuel and dump thousands of pounds of coal and coal dust, resulting in soil and water contamination.

This Comment will discuss the trends that have made exporting coal a viable option for the coal industry and how accommodating the industry’s plans to expand exports will impact the environment. Next, the Comment will explain the history of the regulatory scheme governing the railroads and its preemptive nature. This Comment will then examine two ways to address the issue of fugitive coal dust: first, through the statutory and regulatory authority of the Federal Railroad Administration, and second, through the Clean Air Act. The Comment proposes that states regulate coal dust as particulate matter in their State Implementation Plans. Finally, the Comment explores private citizens’ ability to sue railroad companies under the citizen suit provision.