Select Page

Coal Trains – Coal Dust

The Edmonds Washington City Council unanimously banned coal and oil trains. This is a symbolic gesture because cities probably have no jurisdiction over such matters, however it is important politically because it sends a message to the state, which does have some power under the Commerce Clause to ban inherently dangerous or highly polluting activity.

Coal is filthy to mine. Coal is filthy to transport; the coal cars are open to the wind. Up to a ton of coal can blow off each open car during transportation.

. Coal is filthy to burn. It is not just carbon dioxide it emits. It emits a host of toxic substances, including carbon monoxide, hydrogen, propane, methane, and mercury. coal trainThe pollution from coal plants in China blows east across the Pacific – to rain down on us and on the backyard garden out of which I eat. Some of that pollution, including mercury, falls into the Pacific, where it is taken up by small creatures and works its way up to the salmon that most people love to eat.

We do not need to be adding more mercury to air, water and land, and that is what more coal burning will do. Assuming that coal burning power plants use scrubbers in smoke stacks, coal ash is captured. This makes the air somewhat cleaner, but it creates a disposal problem. What is to be done with all that coal ash? It is collected in coal ash ponds which are held behind dams, where the coal ash is apparently expected to remain for ever. However, earth dams will eventually fail, and the coal ash, laden with mercury, cadmium, and arsenic, will be released into rivers.

If coal were being carried in trucks on our highways, carriers would be required to cover their load and prevent spillage. Why should trains have the privilege of doing otherwise?

Coal trains will pass through around 40 miles of Snohomish County, most of that immediately adjacent to Puget Sound. Regulation of interstate transportation is under federal control. Washington state’s control is limited to approving siting of coal ports. So what could Snohomish County do about coal trains?

Snohomish County can speak up and be heard and not be submissive and silent as it is being poisoned. If I am elected Snohomish County Executive, I will urge passage of resolutions which prohibit the wholesale dumping of arsenic and mercury by any vehicle anywhere in the county. Burlington Northern will just have to find another way to deliver this filthy cargo to China.

I will work with other county executives, with our governor and our representatives in Olympia and in Washington DC to prevent this foolish practice. We should do everything we can to prevent coal trains from moving through Washington state.

As county executive, I will send a representative to China – Maybe Gary Locke – to reason with officials there regarding the folly of burning coal. Instead of investing in coal fired electrical plants, China should put the same money into solar, wind, geothermal, wave, tide, and biomass sources of energy, as Germany is doing. If the capital now being invested in building coal burning power plants were instead invested in sustainable energy technology, China could produce its energy more cheaply. China is choking on its fumes from coal burning. See this letter addressed to Chinese President Xi Jinping.  

Currently four coal trains, 125 cars each, pass through the Columbia Gorge daily. The number will rise to around 16 trains per day. Let’s assume that half of those trains would pass through Snohomish County – eight trains daily, each with 125 cars, and with each car losing around 100 pounds of coal each (some estimates go as high as 645 pounds) on their 1,100 mile journey from Wyoming and Montana to Bellingham. These eight trains per day will travel along some 40 miles of  track from through Snohomish County, mostly close to Puget Sound.

So let’s do the math: 8 trains x 125 cars x 100 pounds = 100,000 pounds of coal dust dumped during the 1,100 mile trip. Forty miles of that trip are in Snohomish County so: 100,000 pounds / 1,100 miles x 40 of those miles in Snohomish County = 3,600 pounds of coal dropped in Snohomish County per day. The Burlington Northern runs along around 40 miles of track through Snohomish County, so: 3,600 / 40 = 90 pounds dropped per mile per day in Snohomish County. This goes on daily, so: 90 pounds per mile x 365 days = 33,000 pounds dropped per year along each mile of track.

Summary: 100 pounds x 8 trains x 125 cars per train / 1,100 miles x 40 miles in Snohomish County x 365 days in a year = 33,000 pounds dropped per year along each mile of track.

Why Not Cover the Load?

Some ask why the cars cannot be covered. It is because if they were covered, the coal in the cars would catch on fire. Even with the cars uncovered, coal will still smolder. Sometimes it arrives at its destination partially on firesmoldering-coal

Coal’s Spontaneous Combustion Problem

Thanks to Read more in  Thanks to Kathy Washienko who provided invaluable research assistance. Those who are evaluating export proposals might do well to examine one little-talked-about peculiarity of Powder River Basin (PRB) coal: it has an unfortunate tendency to spontaneously combust, even in rail cars and stockpiles.

To be clear, it’s not as if coal trains will be delivering blazing cargoes. The threat is likely to be more insidious—slowly smoldering coal that is perhaps emitting noxious gases into neighboring communities. Yet the severity and toxicity of these gases are largely unkown. Does self-ignited coal pose a genuine pubic health risk or is it little more than a handling annoyance for coal shippers? We don’t know. But we do know that even the coal industry says self-ignition is a problem:

Operators familiar with the unique requirements of burning PRB coal will tell you that it’s not a case of “if” you will have a PRB coal fire, it’s “when.”

In fact, one technical analysis—demonstrating that “PRB represents the extremes of handling problems”—found that:

Spontaneous combustion of coal is a well-known phenomenon, especially with PRB coal. This high-moisture, highly volatile sub-bituminous coal will not only smolder and catch fire while in storage piles at power plants and coal terminals, but has been known to be delivered to a power plant with the rail car or barge partially on fire…

Needless to say, even low intensity fires are potentially troublesome for communities near stockpiles or along rail corridors. Yet it’s hard to evaluate the magnitude of the problem. Find this article interesting? Please consider making a gift to support our work. I’m not aware of any scientific study that has looked at the health risks of spontaneously combusted Powder River Basin coal. (There is ample occupational safety literature for coal facility operators.) That said, there is reason to worry that smoldering coal emits harmful pollutants:

Though Powder River Basin coal does not spontaneously explode or burst into full flame (at least not outside of confined environments) it is clear that under the wrong conditions it can self-ignite and burn slowly while traveling in a rail car, standing in a stockpile, or moving along a conveyor system. We don’t know enough to understand the risk of hazardous emissions from smoldering coal. But the problem is worrisome enough that Northwest officials should carefully evaluate the health and safety risks to ensure that large coal shipments would not threaten local communities with spontaneous combustion problems. ***

Robert Kenedy Jr. – Coal, Mercury, Salmon Contamination

Portland Demonstration Against Coal Trains

More Information:

Share This