Environmentalists who claim coal trains pollute Puget Sound are celebrating a federal judge's decision to hear their case.

"This is coal. You can easily tell it apart from other rocks because it's darker black. It's really lightweight and breaks up," said Katelyn Kinn, an attorney with Puget Soundkeeper Alliance.

Puget Soundkeeper Alliance is one of the groups suing BNSF over its open air coal trains. They argue the trains are dropping coal and polluting sensitive waterways in places like the Ballard Locks, where endangered salmon enter the Lake Washington system.

Kinn's made many hikes to the spot under the rail bridge near the Ballard Locks. Sometimes, she finds what she's looking for right on the ground.

"Coal contains mercury, arsenic, lead, many other pollutants. At the very best it destroys habitat," Kinn said.

BNSF won't speculate about whether the black stuff is really coal or whether it's their coal. The company sent the following statement to KING 5:

"We are confident in our legal arguments, and the truth is that BNSF has been at the forefront of coal dust research for more than a decade. We developed a coal loading rule that virtually eliminates any issues with coal dust – both at the mines and in the Pacific Northwest. Our coal loading rule is two-fold: Coal must be loaded so that it utilizes a ‘bread loaf’ shape that reduces issues with wind and then an approved topping agent must be applied. The topping agents are like a glue and have been identified during our testing, and now through years of operations, as effectively controlling dust.

“To add another redundant layer to an already effective mitigation program, we opened a state-of-the-art re-spray facility at our Pasco, Wash., yard in 2015. Now all unit trains of coal and petroleum coke traveling through Washington are sprayed with one of the approved topping agents, further enhancing our coal dust program."

Puget Soundkeeper Alliance says BNSF trains are dropping coal and polluting sensitive waterways.
Puget Soundkeeper Alliance says BNSF trains are dropping coal and polluting sensitive waterways.

Millie Magner lives nearby and often walks near the rail bridge. She blames coal dust for an asthma attack that lasted nearly two weeks.

"It's the worst asthma flare up I've had in my life," she said. "Coal dust is dangerous. It's dangerous for our health. It's dangerous for our health and water."

The trial is set to begin in Seattle on November 7. If a judge rules against BNSF, it could have national implications for the transport of coal.

"We'll start with that in Washington, and hopefully it will spread to other states," Kinn said.