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Working against the notion that coal dust is a major issue:
• A study of coal dust along a major rail corridor in Tennyson, Australia, which sees 9 million tons of coal pass through it every year, found that auto emissions were responsible for twice as much particulate matter in the air than coal trains; coal dust was nearly on par with rubber particles thrown off by automobile tires. Taken all together, particulate matter along Tennyson's rail corridor never exceeded the health threshold.
• In Seward, Alaska, which houses a coal-export facility, ambient air studies investigating the impact of coal traffic through town, conducted by the state's Department of Environmental Conservation, found that particulate matter never reached even a third of the level that the EPA considers unhealthy.
• Even figures cited by coal-export opponents showing the huge amount of coal that can be lost during rail transit are taken from industry studies that actually indicate how easily coal dust can be controlled. For example, a study of fugitive coal dust in Virginia—cited by the Sierra Club's Coal Dust Fact Sheet—states that spraying coal cars with chemicals called surfactants can reduce coal dust by 95 percent. And rail company BNSF's oft-cited figure that 500 to 2,000 pounds of coal dust can escape a coal car every trip is actually culled from a fact sheet explaining why in 2011 the rail company began to require that "crusting agents" be sprayed on all coal cars.
On the other hand:
• Even if particulate matter stays below EPA standards, it's important to remember that not all dust is alike: Coal is laden with arsenic and other toxic materials. Farmers deal with dust just as coal miners do, yet only one of these professions is associated with black lung.
• Nor is all coal created alike: The Powder River Coals User Group released a study detailing how finely Powder River Basin coal breaks down, meaning it's harder to control its dust than that of coal from other regions such as Virginia.
• And coal dust isn't the only emission to consider: More train cars mean more diesel engines pulling them.
As for the Tennyson study, while it suggests that coal dust hasn't increased particulate matter beyond the amount allowed by government regulations, it clearly shows that more coal traffic has led to more coal dust. In the past decade, that city has seen coal transportation triple as Aussies serve the same Asian markets that the Pacific Northwest would; the study shows that coal dust has also tripled.
"If I lived next to those lines in north Seattle, I would be concerned about coal shipments going from 10 to 30 trains a day," says Dan Jaffe, a professor of atmospheric and environmental chemistry at the University of Washington-Bothell. "Wouldn't you?"
In the past eight months, Jaffe has become a citizen scientist on coal, and with the help of a couple of students attempted last fall to gauge how much coal dust is produced by the trains that now travel through Seattle to Canadian shipping terminals. That study turned up too little data to suggest anything conclusive, Jaffe says. And in general, he adds, it's a difficult issue to understand for the lack of strong data. "There's very little information about coal dust measured in the air along the railroad tracks," he says.
Still, he balks at the suggestion that the coal dustup is contrived. "Do you live near a railroad track?" he asks. "I don't think the concerns are unreasonable; the proof is in the pudding. The burden of proof to show that this is not going to damage the environment is on them."
It's a bitter irony that the largest CO2-producing industry in the United States may find salvation by the sea, considering that oceans are bearing the biggest burden of global climate change. The water that coal barges will float on is now more acidic and warmer than it was 100 years ago—not to mention that there'll be more water, period, due to melting ice caps. Oceans also absorb the enormous amounts of mercury produced by the burning of coal, meaning that pregnant women are now told to avoid tuna.
But on a rare cloudless November day, there was no coal to be seen cutting toward the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The sun shone brightly in the San Juan Islands, and in Puget Sound sailors harnessed the steady fall breeze as schooners ripped over the choppy waters and enormous barges sat moored outside the Bellingham port.
After Powder River coal rolls away from the billionaire's ranch and through Clint McRae's fenceline, across Montana and through Spokane, past Queen Anne and by Dan Jaffe's students, here's where at least some of it could travel: through a port just north of Bellingham and into the Pacific Ocean. It—and whatever undisclosed "crusting agent" is applied to it to prevent dust—would be burned, the steam created by the reaction of churning turbines to keep Asian factories in operation.
Eventually the barges would return bearing the fruits of that energy: iPhones, toothbrushes, solar panels. The goods would be unloaded onto trains, to be hauled inland through Seattle, perhaps destined for Sheridan, where sacred ground once smoked in the heat of the high desert plains.