Environmental Groups Diving For Coal Near Seattle Train Tracks

Mar 29, 2013

The debate over exporting Wyoming and Montana coal through terminals on the Northwest coast has been heating up in recent months. Those who support exporting coal say the terminals will create thousands of jobs and tax revenue for the state. Opponents of coal exports have raised concerns about the potential environmental and health impacts of coal. Some of them are taking matters into their own hands. Ashley Ahearn reports.


Laura James pulls a piece of black porous rock from the water beneath the railroad bridge in Ballard.
Credit Lamont Granquist

  I’m staked out on the slippery rocks underneath the Ballard rail bridge near the locks.

That’s a really angry Canadian goose.

There have been trains passing back and forth this morning. But right now I’m waiting for divers to swim by. But these divers aren’t looking for funky marine creatures of Puget Sound. They’re looking for something else.

Laura James is a long-time diver in Puget Sound and now works with the Puget Soundkeeper. She’s just come up from a 20 minute dive in the shallow waters beneath the train bridge. She holds up a rock that she believes is coal.


James: “We actually started finding this stuff, this black rock-like substance and it was pretty much everywhere when you get right here you look around and when you know what to look for it’s there and when it breaks apart it leaves this sand, this black sandy stuff.”

The sound of an oncoming train starts to drown out her voice.

The rocks Laura James was pulling out of the water have not been scientifically confirmed to be coal.

So, I took them to the geology collection at the Burke Museum at the University of Washington for a look.

Ahearn: "Ok, so these are the rocks that were found under the Ballard rail bridge this morning."

Eng: “Is it ok if we dump ‘em out?”

Ron Eng manages the geology collection. He picks up a piece of black rock about the size of a quarter and looks at it under a magnifying glass.

Eng: “I think it could be coal.”

His colleague Bruce Crowley takes a piece and scrapes it on a piece of paper on the table in front of us.

Crowley: “This is awfully soft. It’s like drawing with a charcoal pencil."

Eng: "Coal is something you can scratch with a fingernail. It certainly seems about that soft."

Courtney Wallace is a spokeswoman for BNSF Railway. BNSF operates the trains that currently deliver several million tons of coal to export terminals in Canada.

Wallace: “What was found, we don’t know what it is and coal has been shipped through WA state by a variety of different methods for more than a century and so there’s no telling how long it’s been there or how it came to be.”

Coal companies are now required to apply what’s called surfactant to control the coal coming off of trains. BNSF-funded studies show the surfactant reduces coal dust by 85 percent.

Wallace: “We don’t believe any commodity including coal should be allowed to escape from our shipping containers. Proactive measures are taken to assure the safety of all commodities that we transport.”

However, BNSF Railway has publicly stated that 645 pounds of coal dust can escape from each coal train car.

Coal contains heavy metals and other compounds that have been shown to be harmful to fish.

Copyright 2013 Northwest Public Radio