Scientists On A Quest For Knowledge About Coal Dust Risks

By Ashley Ahearn, KUOW

WASHOUGAL, Wash. — Coal had been transported around the country by rail for decades before the recent push to bring it by train to ports in the Northwest.

And yet, scientists don’t really know how much coal dust could escape from rail cars, how far it might travel, and what coal-borne mercury and other contaminants might do to aquatic life.

With the permitting process moving forward for two large coal terminals in Washington, a team of scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey is trying to find out how the chemicals in coal might interact with the environment.

“We really don’t know what the effects are and whether it is an issue,” says Bob Black, a scientist with the USGS.

Black is the lead scientist on the new study, which has him squelching through the muck at the Steigerwald Wildlife Refuge near Washougal, Washington. The refuge is sandwiched between the Columbia River to the south, and train tracks to the north.

Black and his team are gathering data for a first-of-its kind scientific study of coal and its potential impacts on wetland ecosystems. As he sloshes through the shallow marsh’s waters to plant minnow traps, Black says he knows that he’s also wading into a controversial issue.

“There are communities that are economically interested in this and then there are suggested environmental impacts and ultimately I can have my own personal views but I can’t let those come into play and essentially that’s our role. We can’t let that be part of our science,” Black says.

The team fans out across the marsh as a BNSF Railway train screeches along tracks less than a quarter-mile away. This train is not hauling coal. Right now, roughly one coal train per day travels along the Columbia River before turning north and following the shoreline of Puget Sound to service Canadian coal terminals. But if terminals are built in Longview and near Bellingham, that number could jump to more than 20 coal trains per day.

Some coal does escape from trains, as BNSF has testified publicly in the past. Environmental groups have sued BNSF Railway for violating the Clean Water Act by allowing coal and coal dust to escape from trains and get into waterways along tracks in the Northwest. A judge ruled this month in favor of local groups in Seward, Alaska after they sued a nearby coal terminal for similar Clean Water Act violations. However, supporters of coal exports have called the coal escapement issue a red herring, used by anti-coal environmental groups to spark public alarm.

Looking For Coal Clues

The USGS is gathering samples of muck, fish and insects from two sites in this wildlife refuge, one close to the tracks, the other farther away. The goal is to find out whether more mercury and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are showing up near the train tracks and how those contaminants are behaving in the environment.


Collin Eagles-Smith hunts for dragonfly larvae at Stiegerwald
Lake National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: Ashley Ahearn


Collin Eagles-Smith, an ecologist with USGS, stands thigh-deep in the marsh, net in hand. He’s sifting through handfuls of black muck, looking for dragonfly larvae. When he finds one, he opens his palm to display the specimen before putting it in a little plastic baggy to take back to the lab for analysis. Eagles-Smith says dragonflies can serve as vectors to transmit mercury contamination out of the aquatic environment and into land-based ecosystems because they feed on all kinds of plankton and other tiny organisms. When they grow up and fly out of the muck they are in turn eaten by birds, frogs, fish and other animals, potentially transferring mercury contamination up the food chain.

“So what we’re looking at is essentially, is there mercury in this dragonfly and then we’re going to be using a fairly sophisticated approach to fingerprint the isotope ratios of the mercury to see if we can say whether the mercury in this dragonfly was from coal dust,” he explains.

By comparing dragonfly larvae, sediment and fish samples from this site with those from another site farther from the tracks, the team hopes to see how far contamination from coal trains could travel. But Eagles-Smith says there are still a lot of questions about how active the mercury in coal might be if it gets into the environment. Mercury is believed to be inert and less harmful to the environment until it goes through a complex biological process known as mercury methylation.

“I like to think of it as activating the mercury, and it makes it more biologically available, more toxic. Do you smell that rotten egg smell?” Eagles-Smith asks from his mucky perch. “That is the smell of tiny organisms breaking down organic material. Those same organisms are the ones that take the mercury, the less toxic form of mercury, and convert it into the methyl mercury.”

Once it’s methylated, mercury has been shown to be a potent neurotoxin, Eagles-Smith explains. “It can influence stress hormones, thyroid hormones, and sex hormones so it can impact wildlife reproduction, fish behavior, their survival, their ability to hunt for prey or their ability to avoid predation.”

The unique rotten-egg decaying process that takes place in low-oxygen marshy environments like this means that wetlands could be hotspots for transforming inert mercury from coal into a more toxic and biologically-available form that can then make its way up the food chain, the scientists worry.

Emerging technology is helping scientists zoom in on more specific sources of mercury pollution in the environment. Mercury can travel in air pollution for thousands of miles. But scientists want to know if coal trains that pass through wetlands like this might serve as a sort of direct deposit of mercury pollution.

The USGS expects to have preliminary results within the next 6 months, though the researchers caution that this is a small sample size and more study is needed. The results will be shared with the state and federal agencies that are studying the environmental impacts of the two proposed coal terminals in the Northwest.

Even without terminals, coal trains will increase

Trains would feed growing, but much smaller, terminals in B.C.

Jennifer Buchanan / The HeraldA coal train passes through Everett in May. Proposed export terminals would increase the number of trains between Seattle and Bellingham.
Jennifer Buchanan / The Herald
A coal train passes through Everett in May. Proposed export terminals would increase the number of trains between Seattle and Bellingham.

Bill Sheets, The Daily Herald

If coal export terminals proposed for the Pacific Northwest are never built, the number of trains rumbling through Washington state filled with coal would still increase.

Coal is already shipped from British Columbia, and terminals there are expanding.

Based on projected numbers, however, those increases would not come close to equaling the combined capacity of the terminals proposed for Cherry Point near Bellingham and two others in the Northwest.

Opponents of building coal export terminals in Washington say they would bring traffic congestion from the number of trains, and generate coal dust and greenhouse gases.

Supporters say Cherry Point will create jobs — 4,400 temporary, construction-related jobs and 1,200 long-term positions, according to SSA Marine, the Seattle company that wants it built.

If Washington says no to the terminal, coal trains will still come through Western Washington, but the jobs will go north to Canada, SSA Marine spokesman Craig Cole said.

“We do know there’s demand (for coal in Asia) and port operators will seek to service that demand, whether they’re in the United States or British Columbia,” he said.

The proposed $650 million Gateway Pacific terminal at Cherry Point would add an average of 18 trips per day — nine full trains going north and nine empty trains traveling southbound — between Seattle and Bellingham. Marysville, which has 16 street crossings, and Edmonds, with a crossing at the ferry dock, would be the communities most affected in Snohomish County.

On average, about four coal trains per day pass through Snohomish County on their way to Canada, according to BNSF Railway.

The Cherry Point terminal could ship an estimated 60 million tons per year of coal, grain, potash and scrap wood for biofuels to Asia. Coal would make up the bulk of the shipments, according to the state Department of Ecology, which is handling the environmental review for the project. That review is expected to take at least a couple more years.

The Millennium terminal proposed for Longview, Wash., would have a coal capacity of about 48 million tons, according to the ecology department. Trains to this port would travel across the state but not north to Seattle and beyond.

Another smaller terminal targeted for Boardman, Ore., on the Columbia River could handle just under 9 million tons.

Together, these ports could ship 117 million tons per year.

Possible expansions at the five ports in British Columbia could add 55 million tons per year to their current capacity, according to numbers compiled by SSA Marine.

If all of the B.C. expansions come to pass, they would roughly equal the output of Gateway Pacific.

“There will be additional coal that will be going to British Columbia, and we will be working hard to increase the percentage,” said Jim Orchard, senior vice president of marketing and government affairs for Cloud Peak Energy, a coal-mining company based in Denver.

At the same time, it won’t equal what could be shipped through the U.S. terminals, he said.

Cloud Peak operates two mines in Wyoming and one in southeastern Montana, in the area known as the Powder River Basin, Orchard said.

The greater the shipping capacity, the faster the coal can be mined without piling up, he said.

Without the U.S. terminals, “the timing with which we get to new reserves, it just would take longer,” Orchard said.

The largest potential British Columbia terminal expansion could occur at Ridley Terminals in Prince Rupert, B.C., 460 miles north of Vancouver by air.

This port gets ships to northern Asian ports one day faster than those sailing from Vancouver and three days faster than ships leaving from Long Beach, Calif., according to the Ridley website.

Right now, Ridley handles about 12 million tons per year. It has plans to double to 24 million tons, but has access to a vacant area nearby that could allow it to grow by 36 million tons or more on top of its current capacity, according to numbers compiled by SSA Marine.

It could potentially grow by even more than that.

Adjacent to Ridley’s current terminal is a 110-acre wooded tract called “Area A” that could be used by the terminal for further expansion, according to quotes from Ridley president George Dorsey in Coal Age magazine in March 2012.

“All that’s needed are the capital investments necessary,” Ridley said in the story. “Area A gives us the capacity to double the facility, from 24 (million tons) to 50 (million tons) and beyond. There’s so much space, it’s infinitely expandable.”

A Ridley official could not be reached for further comment.

“B.C. terminal operators are very competitive and capable and, like most businesses, will creatively endeavor to find a way to meet needs,” said SSA Marine’s Cole.

Still, Prince Rupert’s distance from the U.S. mines would increase travel costs, said Dennis Horgan, vice president and general manager of the Westshore Terminal in Tsawwassen.

“It’s a long way up there,” he said.

Currently, BNSF trains carrying coal through Washington end their run at Tsawwassen, said Courtney Wallace, a spokeswoman for the railroad.

Westshore is increasing its capacity by 4 million tons per year, to 33 million, and will be maxed out, Horgan said.

Some trains do pass over the Canadian Rockies carrying coal from Wyoming mines to Prince Rupert, according to Horgan.

“It’s still a long way,” he said.

Most of the coal shipped from Prince Rupert comes from British Columbia, Horgan said.

Westshore and Ridley ship only coal, he said. Neptune Terminal and Fraser Surrey Docks in Vancouver handle a mix, and Pacific Coast Terminals, based in Port Moody, ships mostly sulfur but has plans to add coal, according to Horgan. These terminals put together are much smaller than the Tsawwassen and Prince Rupert facilities.

Other commodities could figure into the picture, Wallace of BNSF Railway said.

“It is important to keep in mind that freight rail traffic will increase with or without coal export,” she said in an email. “Train volumes through any community ebb and flow based on several factors: market demand, customer needs, economic conditions, etc.

“Washington state’s economy is built on trade and ports and demand is increasing domestically for all goods as the population grows,” she said. “That’s a good thing, especially for a state like Washington that is heavily dependent on trade.”

Sierra Club sues over coal dust from uncovered trains in Columbia River gorge

The Sierra Club and other environmental groups sued BNSF railway and coal companies in federal court today, charging that they pollute the Columbia River and other water bodies with coal dust from uncovered coal trains. This water sample from the Columbia is an example of it, they say.Motoya Nakamura/The Oreognian
The Sierra Club and other environmental groups sued BNSF railway and coal companies in federal court today, charging that they pollute the Columbia River and other water bodies with coal dust from uncovered coal trains. This water sample from the Columbia is an example of it, they say.Motoya Nakamura/The Oreognian

Scott Learn, The Oregonian, June 5, 2013

The Sierra Club and other environmental groups sued BNSF railway and coal companies in federal court Wednesday, charging that they pollute the Columbia River and other water bodies with coal dust from uncovered coal trains.

It’s the first lawsuit filed in the Northwest’s coal export controversy. Developers are pursuing three train-fed export terminals to ship Montana and Wyoming coal to Asia, two in Washington and one in Boardman at the Port of Morrow.

The lawsuit focuses on pollution from roughly four uncovered coal train trips a day through Washington’s side of the gorge to a coal-fired power plant in Centralia and export terminals in British Columbia.

Approval of the Northwest export terminals could add about 20 train trips a day and increase water pollution, the environmental groups charge. They want a federal judge to require Clean Water Act permits for the uncovered, mile-plus trains.

In statements, BNSF, union backers and the trade group representing coal companies and others pursuing Northwest coal export called the lawsuit frivolous and said it threatened to delay the export projects and jeopardize the jobs that go with them.

The lawsuit is “nothing more than a publicity stunt meant to stop the permitting of multi-commodity export terminals,” the company said.

The Sierra Club had a laboratory test debris in several places including alongside the tracks and the Columbia River, and the lab found it was coal, the suit says.

BNSF has estimated about 500 pounds of coal blowing off a single open car, the environmental groups note. But terminal and rail officials say most of the dust is lost near the mines, and the railroads are taking steps to limit dust, which can undermine track ballast and derail trains.

BNSF officials say the company has clamped down on coal dust from the trains in recent years, spraying sticky surfactants to keep dust down and having mines load coal in a “bread loaf” shape that reduces coal dust losses.

With U.S. demand flagging, coal terminal developers want to ramp up exports, carting in Montana and Wyoming coal on mile-plus, uncovered coal trains. The terminals could bring hundreds of millions in investment and hundreds of jobs, they say.

The suit was filed in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington in Seattle.


Environmentalists signal they’ll sue BNSF over coal dust

The Sierra Club and four other environmental groups Tuesday said they intend to file a federal lawsuit to force BNSF Railway and six coal companies to better contain the coal being shipped in open-topped trains.

By Hal Bernton

The Sierra Club and four other environmental groups Tuesday said they intend to file a federal lawsuit to force BNSF Railway and six coal companies to better contain the coal being shipped in open-topped train cars.

In a legal notice sent to the companies, the environmental groups contend that the trains are spewing coal dust and chunks of debris into the Columbia River, the Lake Washington Ship Canal and other Northwest waterways in violation of the federal Clean Water Act.

The legal challenge comes as environmental groups are campaigning against proposals to build new coal-export terminals in Washington and Oregon that would greatly increase the amount of coal trains moving through the Northwest.

“This action today seeks to stop illegal pollution and keep our river free of dirty coal,” said Brett VandenHeuvel, executive director of the Columbia Riverkeeper. “The threat of coal export makes this lawsuit even timelier.”

Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, Friends of the Columbia Gorge and RE Sources for Sustainable Communities also signed on to the intent-to-sue letter.

In a statement released Tuesday, BNSF said that the railroad has ”safely hauled coal in Washington for decades. Yet despite the movement of so much coal over such a long period of time, we were not aware of a single coal dust complaint lodged with a state agency in the Northwest or with the railroad until the recent interest in coal export terminals.”

“This is nothing more than the threat of a nuisance lawsuit without merit, that is part of an ongoing campaign to designed to create headlines to influence the review process for proposed export terminals,” the statement said.

In Washington state, major new export terminals are proposed for Longview and Cherry Point near Bellingham to send Montana and Wyoming coal to Asian markets. Some coal already is being shipped through Washington for export from British Columbia, and some is shipped to coal-fired plant near Centralia.

That legal notice was accompanied by a listing of more than 20 sites in Washington where coal has spilled since the beginning of 2011.

The document also includes photographs that depict coal dust blowing off a train as it passes along the Columbia River near Horsethief Lake. They also show what appear to be nuggets or chunks of coal at other locations, including near the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks in Seattle.

In a teleconference with reporters, several Washington residents spoke about their experiences with coal from the trains. Don McDermott, of Dallesport, Klickitat County, says that coal dust has blown off the trains and settled on his grapevines that grow beside the railroad track in a fish pond.

“My primary concern is that there is trespass on my property,” McDermott said. “The railroads need to contain their loads. The shippers need to contain their loads.”

The legal notice by environmental groups cited industry studies that indicated from 250 to 700 pounds of coal were lost from each rail car during transport.

Courtney Wallace, the BNSF spokeswoman, said that past studies were rough estimates, and indicated the coal losses fluctuated, primarily while the trains were within the Powder River Basin in southeast Montana and northeast Wyoming.

She said the studies were done before 2011, when new regulations to reduce coal dust were put in place.

Wallace says the new coal-loading rules require shippers to take added measures to address coal loss, including putting chemicals known as “topper agents” on the coal that reduce most of the coal-dust loss.

The chemicals also have stirred some concern.

In a Jan. 22 letter to agencies that will prepare the environmental-impact statement for the proposed Cherry Point terminal, the Washington Department of Natural Resources notes that one of these chemicals used in cleaning up the 2010 Gulf Oil spill has “been implicated in subsequent fish and shellfish deformities.”