The passage of coal trains through Puget Sound is an extraordinarily bad idea, something I have blogged about in the past. In this blog, I will provide an update on the issue and, using new information, review why local residents should oppose this problematic idea.
The coal train issue has gotten a lot of attention lately, including a recent legal suit by the Sierra Club and a panel discussion by Mayor McGinn and others.
So why are coal trains a bad idea? The list is a long one.
1. Traffic and economic impact.
Today there are 3-4 coal trains a day rolling through Seattle, Edmonds, and other Puget Sound cities/towns. It is proposed that this would increase to 18. According to a study commissioned by the city of Seattle this would cause ONE TO TWO HOURS additional stoppages at railway crossings. The result will be a substantial increase in traffic in the Seattle and Edmond's waterfronts and reduced access to ferries. A substantial loss of the productive time of drivers. There was substantial opposition to the new basketball stadium based on increasing traffic causing problems for shipping companies, with suggestions of major economic impacts. Shouldn't we be concerned about the economic implications of coal trains?
First, it is clear that the train-inspired traffic jams will cause increased local pollution. Then, some of the air pollution produced by burning the coal in Asia will come across the Pacific to raise the base-line air pollution levels in our region (UW Professor Dan Jaffe, among others, have documented this). Increased number of trains, will contribute to an increase of diesel exhaust, which contains a wide collection of dangerous and carcinogenic components.
And then there is coal dust. I am going to be controversial right now and suggest that coal dust from trains is not a big problem here in Puget Sound. First, I believe most of the coal dust will blow off near the mines in Wyoming and in the windy sections of the Columbia Gorge (bad for them, good for us). Plus, the trains are moving relatively slow up Puget Sound, so less blows off. And it seems like the coal companies are spraying some kind of surfactant on the surface of the coal to bind the top surface. I have walked near the tra
3. Global Warming
If you are worried about global warming and its effects globally and locally, coal trains are a bad idea. The proposed export volumes are huge: roughly 15% of the total coal usage of China. We will be a participant and contributor to a significant increase in atmospheric CO2. It is nice to drive our hybrids and use wind energy. The coal trains will compensate (in a bad way) for all our sacrifices and investments.
4. Slope Failures and Closed Railways
This winter we had a large number of slope failures along the tracks leading from Seattle to Everett. That route was out for weeks, crippling Sounder service and train traffic. Winter rains were clearly a major contributor, but there is some reason to expect that the vibrations from heavy coal trains are enhancing the slope failure problem. A number of residents near the train tracks have sent me messages like this:
"I live three blocks from the tracks and I can
feel my house vibrate when the coal trains pass."
There is a literature in geomorphology/geoengineering literature on vibrations contributing to slope failures.
An ancillary issue is if a slope failure could send a full coal train into the Sound, with substantial and negative environmental implications.
The UW Coal Train Study is Crowd Funded!
It is time to get hard numbers on the air pollution aspects of coal trains. As mentioned several weeks ago, Professor Dan Jaffe proposed a study using sophisticated instrumentation to quantify the effluent and coal dust coming off the current coal train traffic. This study was deemed too controversial to fund by local governments and so he went to crowd funding. With the help of some publicity in the Seattle Times and the generosity of several of you, he was fully funded. The measurement over Puget Sound will begin soon (locations will be kept secret!) and Dr. Jaffe is planning a follow-on experiment along the Columbia Gorge.