Crowdfunding Coal Science

May 21, 2013

Crowdfunding and kickstarter campaigns have become popular online tools to raise money for fledgling businesses and independent projects. Scientists are starting to use these sites to fund research as well.

State and federal agencies have begun the environmental review process for the two largest coal export terminals on the West coast. Now there are some scientists who are asking the public to chip in for studies about the impacts of exporting coal. Ashley Ahearn reports for EarthFix.


Scientists hope to use crowdfunding to study the impact coal trains like this one could have on the Northwest.
Credit Katie Campbell

  Dan Jaffe’s standing on a pedestrian footbridge looking down at the train tracks that run along Richmond Beach north of Seattle. This is where coal from Montana and Wyoming could pass through on its way to be exported to Asia.

Jaffe’s a professor of atmospheric and environmental science at the University of Washington in Bothell – and he’s curious about coal dust escaping from trains.

Jaffe: “All trains are going to be emitting diesel particulate. The next question is whether trains carrying coal are going to also be emitting things like coal dust.”

Jaffe and a student sampled the air over these tracks last summer as trains passed by and found an increase in larger particles after coal trains came through.

The results are preliminary, but he says when he went to the Environmental Protection Agency and the State Department of Ecology they said they couldn’t fund his research.

So, he created an online profile with Microryza, a crowdfunding website.

Jaffe: "And crowdfunding is an approach where you go to the people, you go to the citizens of the united states and say hey we’re not getting enough funding for scientific research in this country but here’s an idea and I think it’s a good and important idea and you throw it out there and if you can convince other people that it’s important idea then they will fund it."

Within days Jaffe had surpassed his 18,000 dollar target. He raised enough money to pay for a monitoring station to be put up along these tracks. It will gather real-time data and video so he can study the emissions of specific types of trains and try to get an answer to the coal dust question. He plans to share all the data with the public for independent analysis.

And Jaffe’s not alone in turning to the public for help. Another group in Whatcom County is hoping to raise 50,000 dollars to study the potential health impacts of coal exports across the Northwest.

The group raised 9,000 dollars in the first 48 hours of its public campaign and hopes to have the report done in time to be worked into the official environmental review of the proposed terminal near Bellingham.

The report will assess train noise, coal dust, air pollution, rail safety, cancer rates in rail communities and other potential issues.

Hennessy: “We feel at this point all these other studies are getting ahead of the study we are waiting for.”

Lauri Hennessy is a spokeswoman for the Alliance For Northwest Jobs And Exports. She says the environmental review should not look at any potential impacts outside of the area immediately surrounding the terminals themselves. She cautions that the crowdfunded research could cross the line into advocacy.

Hennessy: “What I think we all need to watch for is research that is done to meet a certain end result and that’s what we don’t want to have happen.”

Dan Jaffe is the author of dozens of published scientific articles and has served on review panels for the National Academy of Sciences. He says he doesn’t do advocacy research and when he takes on the question of coal dust, he’ll conduct that study just as he would any other area of scientific exploration.

Jaffe: “I have no interest in skewing the data to come to a predetermined conclusion because you know reputation in science is a lot like virginity. You can only lose it once.”

The governmental agencies overseeing the Gateway Pacific Terminal near Bellingham should release a preliminary report in the next month or so. The report will define the scope of what they’ll be looking at in the official review, which will be conducted over the next several years.

Copyright 2013 Northwest Public Radio