During the past week, a paper describing the air quality effects of coal trains lumbering through the Pacific Northwest was accepted for publication and finally I can tell you about it.
This work was completed by Professor Dan Jaffe of the University of Washington in Bothell and several UW students, and relates the results of an extended observational study above the tracks in north Seattle and in the Columbia Gorge.
Let me begin by thanking many of you for helping to make this research possible. Dr. Jaffe and I had talked about determining what was coming off the coal trains, using modern instrumentation, for a while and we even did a test run on the bridge at Richmond Beach park (I really enjoyed the excitement of waiting for coal trains and then watching the particle monitors as the train passed underneath). But the project required more equipment and student help to do it right, which meant a need for funding.
This research was a too controversial for State agencies and I suggested to Dr. Jaffe that he try a new funding source: crowdfunding over the web. Roughly a year ago I asked you to assist with the funding, and a number of you stepped up to the challenge and played a major role in funding this important research. Thank you.
Let me summarize what this research found in Seattle...and so you don't die of suspense...the answer is yes. Coal trains clearly degrade air quality.
The air quality sensors were placed near the train tracks in the Blue Ridge neighborhood on the patio of a volunteer homeowner. The location was kept secret for a number of reasons, including fears that some folks might view the sensors as a threat and destroy them.
Dr. Jaffe's students placed a number of air quality sensors at that location, allowing the measurement of particle sizes and CO2 levels, as well as an automated videocam that facilitated the determination of the type of train. There were two main types of potential pollutants from the train: small particles from the diesel exhaust and coal dust.
Let me show you what happened when a coal train went by during the morning of August 13, 2013. First, there is spike in the amount of CO2 produced by the train's diesel engines. The plot also shows TSP, the total amount of particulate matter in a cubic meter of air, and PM1, which is the mass of particles in a sample smaller than 1 micron (millionth of a meter). TSP includes the mass of particles of all sizes and the difference between TSP and PM1 is a measure of the amount of large particles--like coal dust.
The example above is not unique and one quickly draws the conclusion that folks near coal train tracks are exposed to noxious diesel exhaust AND coal dust. To get an idea of how serious this issue is, here is a comparison of daily average PM2.5 levels (a measure of the concentration of particles less than 2.5 microns) over entire month last summer at Blue Ridge (near the train tracks), in the Duwamish industrial zone, Beacon Hill in Seattle, and suburban Lynnwood. Keep in mind the PM2.5 particles are nasty little creatures than can get deep in your lungs, worsening asthma and heart disease.
Wow!. That beautiful view home in Blue Ridge, with an expensive view of the Sound, has air as bad as the industrial Duwamish. Most of the Blue Ridge pollution was from diesel engines from coal and non-coal trains. Beacon Hill is better and Lynnwood is like breath of fresh air.
Dr.Jaffe is planning another field experiment in Seattle and the Columbia Gorge (where winds and "fresher" coal would cause the coal dust concentrations to be more serious).
Coal trains are bad news from so many viewpoints:
1. The diesel effluent greatly degrades the air quality in neighborhoods around the tracks.
2. There is clearly coal dust coming off the trains, even when it is not visually apparent (like north Seattle).
3. The trains cause substantial increases in traffic jams, worsening pollution from cars, and impacting public safety and the local economy.
4. The planned coal on these trains would substantially contribute to CO2 increases in the atmosphere that will change the climate of our planet.
5. A significant portion of the pollution from the burning of coal in Asia will make its way back to the Northwest, further degrading our air quality.
What's not to like?
Coal trains are environmental and economic disasters that are not worth the handful of train and terminal jobs they would produce. Wherever you are on the political spectrum, you should be against these trains.
Addendum: A lot of folks ask why the coal trains are not covered. When I asked this question, I was told it was because of fear of explosion of the coal dust, but perhaps one of you knows the story better.