As Washington and Oregon consider proposals for three coal export terminals, many have raised questions about how much coal dust could come off the trains that would service those terminals. If the Gateway Pacific Terminal is built near Bellingham up to 18 coal trains could travel along the I-5 corridor every day. According to new research, some dust will escape from those trains.
An atmospheric and environmental scientist with the University of Washington has gathered air quality samples at two sites next to train tracks in the Northwest. One of the sites is in the Columbia River Gorge, the other is in the Blue Ridge neighborhood of northern Seattle, on Puget Sound. The monitoring devices were placed within 30 meters from the train tracks. And after testing 450 trains as they passed - roughly 10% of which were carrying coal - Dan Jaffe says some preliminary results are in.
Jaffe: “We did find an increase in large particles in the air when coal trains pass by and it does suggest that it’s coal dust and it’s consistent with coal dust from those trains.”
Coal dust contains arsenic, mercury and other contaminants but little is known about how dust from trains could impact people who live nearby. Public health officials in Washington have raised concerns about coal dust and called for more monitoring. Courtney Wallace is a spokesperson for BNSF Railway – the company that would transport coal from the mines of Wyoming and Montana to the terminals in the Northwest.
Wallace: “We are committed to reducing coal dust as an issue, which is one of the reasons we’ve been studying coal dust for nearly 10 years.”
BNSF Railway has publicly testified that up to 645 pounds of coal dust can escape from each train car on a 400-mile journey. The company now requires coal companies to spray surfactants on the cars, which BNSF says reduces the amount of dust that escapes. The company has no plans to cover the coal cars. Wallace says Dan Jaffe’s findings could be considered in the overall environmental review of the proposed coal terminals, which will be conducted by state and federal agencies. But she points out that Jaffe’s research was crowdfunded and it hasn’t yet been peer reviewed. Jaffe dismisses those concerns.
Jaffe: "I’ve published over 120 papers in the scientific peer reviewed literature. I know the drill. If I didn’t feel our results would hold up to peer review scrutiny there’s no way I’d be releasing them now."
It could be at least two more years before the full environmental reviews of the coal terminals are complete.
Copyright 2013 KUOW