Website funds UW Bothell researcher’s coal-train dust study

A UW-Bothell researcher turned to a crowd-sourcing website to fund his study of trains’ emissions and dust.

By Sharon Salyer, The Herald

BOTHELL — Ask just about any scientist. They have far more ideas for things they want to investigate than they can ever get the funding to explore.

That’s the conundrum that Dan Jaffe, a researcher at the University of Washington’s Bothell campus, found himself in last month.

Jaffe is a professor of chemistry and atmospheric sciences. He wanted to study just how much emissions and tiny particles called particulate matter are being produced by passenger and freight train exhaust as well as coal dust from trains in Western Washington.

Little currently is known about the environmental effects caused by the passing trains.

His interest was triggered by a proposal to build a $650 million terminal north of Bellingham to export coal, grain and other material to Asia.

The proposal eventually would create up to 450 jobs, backers say. The trade-off: It also would bring more trains through Western Washington — up to 18 each day through Snohomish County, opponents say.

Jaffe thought there was a fairly simple way to conduct his experiment: Install an air-quality monitor that could measure which particles were caused by diesel exhaust and which from the larger coal dust particles over a four- to six-week period this summer.

A web camera also would be installed to document which trains were passing as the emissions occurred.

With the help of some UW students, he figured the experiment could be conducted for a little more than $18,000.

Compared to multi-million dollar research projects, that’s chump change. Nevertheless, Jaffe was getting little more than a swing-and-a-miss trying to drum up financial interest in the project.

Government agencies weren’t too encouraging, he said. “I was getting a little bit discouraged. I was pretty close to giving up.”

That’s when someone suggested he take a look at an online site,, where researchers make public pitches for donations to fund their projects. Musicians, artists and others have used similar “crowd-sourcing” websites, such as Kickstarter, to support their projects.

“I was kind of skeptical at first,” Jaffe said.

His pitch outlining the project, with a promise that donors would be credited in the research, was posted on April 29.

Much to his surprise, on Thursday evening, just 11 days after his project was posted, he was notified that the goal had been met, with 236 people pledging a total of $18,055.

Publicity over his project and the way he raised money to do it have generated a lot of interest, he said.

“I’ve had emails from people telling me how to do it better,” Jaffe said. Their suggestions included adding additional monitoring sites or doing an analysis of the chemistry of coal dust.

He said he’s also had some interest from an environmental agency in a coal-producing state.

With the pledge goal reached far earlier than the July 1 online deadline, Jaffe said on Friday that he’s moving up the start of his research.

Assisted by two or three students at the University of Washington’s Bothell campus, he said he hopes to begin collecting information in July.

Measurements may be taken at two different sites. By moving the equipment, information can be collected on whether there are more diesel particulates when trains are moving slowly or if there is any coal dust left behind when the trains are going fast, he said.

Results are expected nine months after the project begins.

“I’ll be pretty mum on releasing it much earlier than that,” Jaffe said. “When the data come in, we have to think about what it means. That’s how science is.

“We need the first shot at it to figure out what it means and to do it in the quiet of the labs.”

Although the fundraising goal has been reached, donors can still make contributions. If enough do, Jaffe said he’s considering adding an additional monitoring site near the Columbia River Gorge.

“There have been reports of coal dust there,” he said. “I think scientific measurements would be very useful.”

Ore. report says coal-train dust data too sparse

Industry data is too scant to gauge the health effects of coal dust blowing off of trains headed from the Great Plains to export terminals along the West Coast, according to a review by Multnomah County’s health department.

The Associated Press

PORTLAND, Ore. — Industry data is too scant to gauge the health effects of coal dust blowing off of trains headed from the Great Plains to export terminals along the West Coast, according to a review by Multnomah County’s health department.

County Chairman Jeff Cogen, a coal export opponent, requested the report on health effects, The Oregonian newspaper ( reported.

Local governments can’t stop the export projects, he said, but “the burden should be on the coal companies and the train companies to prove that this is not going to damage the health of our residents.”

One in nine Multnomah County residents lives within a third of a mile of potential coal-train routes, the report said.

Three of the five terminals being considered for coal exports could send trains through Portland – one in Coos Bay and two along the Columbia River in Longview, Wash., and at a Port of St. Helens industrial park near Clatskanie.

The analysis looked at the impact if all three projects succeed, bringing up to 90 million tons of coal through the county on 16 to 19 trains each day. But some of the traffic might be on the Washington side of the river, and two of the terminals haven’t applied for permits.

“The bottom line is a lot of the information on coal dust dispersal is proprietary, and it’s not well validated,” said Gary Oxman, who recently retired as county health officer and oversaw the report. “It doesn’t mean there’s a terrible risk from train transport, but it needs to be illuminated more.”

The report says the federal government should do a regional study of export proposals, a call similar to one made by Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber.

The dust contains harmful metals, including cadmium. But little is known about how it’s dispersed or the size of the particles. Smaller particles are more likely to lodge in the lungs.

BNSF Railway has estimated that up to a ton blows off of a single car. But terminal and rail officials say most of the dust is lost near mines in Montana and Wyoming’s Powder River Basin.

Coal shipments have been going through Washington to export ports in British Columbia for decades with no complaints made to regulators there, say advocates such the Alliance for Northwest Jobs and Exports, a trade group that includes railroads and coal companies.

“Coal dust is one issue where people involved in the alliance feel very, very comfortable that it’s not a concern,” said spokeswoman Lauri Hennessey. “I really feel it’s a red herring.”

The report concludes the trains a mile long would generate relatively small increases in diesel pollution and noise, but they would go through areas already heavily affected by pollution. The trains could create cumulative delays of up to two hours per day at at-grade rail crossings, the report said.

Information from: The Oregonian,