Coal trains

by Oliver Lazenby

This article was originally published in June 2014

Few environmental issues have raised local fervor as much as the coal trains planned for the Pacific Northwest.

coal train

Proponents argue the three proposed terminals would create 294 to 400 jobs with salaries of more than $75,000 a year. On the other hand, opponents warn that shipping coal through the Northwest will reduce air and water quality, affecting public health, as well as rivers and wildlife (think salmon) along the shipping routes.

The plan is that trains would haul coal from Montana and Wyoming to terminals proposed for Cherry Point north of Bellingham, Wash., Longview, Wash., and Boardman, Ore. The coal itself contains mercury, arsenic, lead, cadmium and other toxins.

Studies link coal dust to respiratory problems, high blood pressure and other health problems. Prolonged exposure is associated with bronchitis and emphysema.
Coal cars cannot be covered because spontaneous combustion of coal is a well-known phenomenon, especially with the type of coal at issue here.
The Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) Railway’s own calculations show coal trains lose 500 to 2,000 pounds of coal dust — per car — during each journey. BNSF says most of that dust is lost in the beginning of the journey.

Coal dust escapes as coal trains rumble alongside Puget Sound and the Columbia River. According to Friends of the Columbia Gorge, every day three or four mile-long BNSF coal trains, averaging 120 cars each, traverse the Washington side of the Gorge. Every day, up to 40,000 pounds of the coal drifts out of those cars and blankets the corridors along the Columbia River in the National Scenic Area.

University of Washington Professor Dan Jaffe placed an air quality sensor near train tracks in Seattle’s Blue Ridge neighborhood and measured a spike in particles from both coal dust and diesel exhaust as trains passed. Jaffe says a 50-percent increase in rail traffic could expose residents to levels higher than National Ambient Air Quality Standards. If the Cherry Point terminal is approved, coal trains also would pass along Seattle’s Elliot Bay waterfront and Edmonds’ marine reserve.

Coal and wildlife

“Adding this new new source of toxic pollution to our rivers endangers recovering salmon runs and the people who enjoy and rely on them,” says Miles Johnson, a clean water attorney with Columbia Riverkeeper. “Coal export projects would undermine the decades of effort, and hundreds of millions of dollars we have invested in salmon recovery.”  

A National Wildlife Federation report says, “There’s a big gap in our scientific understanding of how our region’s fisheries would be impacted by coal mining, transport and burning.”

It also says that while data for Oregon and Washington are scarce, case studies of similar developments around the world are troubling. Negative effects from coal dust have been documented on juvenile fish in South Carolina, British Columbia, and elsewhere. (Read “The True Cost of Coal“.

The National Marine Fisheries Service found that building a coal export terminal in Oregon and barging coal through the Gorge likely would affect 13 species listed under the Endangered Species Act, including several species of salmon and steelhead.

The Columbia River also provides vital habitat for Dungeness crab, sea lions, oysters, mussels, clams and other shellfish.

Lummi Nation

The proposed terminal at Cherry Point would be only a few miles from the Lummi Nation. Lummi fishers have harvested halibut, salmon, herring, crab and shellfish off Cherry Point for 3,500 years.

Jay Julius, a fisherman and council member of the Lummi Nation, is concerned the increased coal traffic would harm the tribe’s ability to exercise treaty-guaranteed rights to harvest fish.

“One accident inside the Salish Sea and my way of life is gone,” Julius told Earthfix.

In 2013 the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, a regional congress of more than 50 tribes in seven states, passed a resolution opposing the proposed export terminals due to the impact on fish.

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