June 02, 2012

Coal Trains: Bad for the Northwest Environment

There has been a lot of discussion about  to greatly increase the number of coal trains passing through Washington State, trains that would move coal mined in Wyoming and Montana to ports where it would be loaded on to ships destined for Asia.   A number of local groups are opposing this idea and recently the Seattle City Council voted for a motion against the trains.

Folks,  coal trains and coal export to Asia are poor ideas and bad for the environment on a number of levels.  

Those who have read this blog know I am no global warming radical...and on a number of occasions I have spoken against those exaggerating the local threat of increased greenhouse gases.  But anthropogenic (man-caused) global warming is a very serious issue and the earth will warm considerably during the next 50-100 years because of increasing CO2 and other greenhouse gases (e.g., methane). Coal is one of the worst fossil fuels, in terms of production of CO2 per unit heat produced, and it is dirty, resulting in lots of particles and toxic gases in the atmosphere.

So here we are in the U.S, driving our hybrid cars, expending large amounts of money on renewable energy sources, insulating our homes and business, and working in a dozen other ways to lessen our carbon footprint.   And at the same time we plan to mine tens or hundreds of millions of tons of coal a year and ship it to China?  This makes no sense.   And it costs energy--lots of energy--to ship the coal to our ports and then across the widest ocean in the world, and then to move it to where it is needed in Asia.

But is is far worse than that.  Each coal car is a huge source of coal dust--Burlington Northern estimates about 500 lb of coal dust is lost per car during the trip.   Thus, we also have a substantial local public health problem as local communities near rail lines are covered by a veil of particulates that can cause serious respiratory problems for those with asthma and other health issues.  In fact, some of us at the UW are sufficiently interested in this that we plan on measuring these dust levels over the summer as some of the coal trains lumber by.  And the diesel trains that  pull all these coal cars are THEMSELVES big pollution sources....diesel engines produce a toxic collection of substances that irritate the lungs and even cause cancer.

Want to see the coal dust blowing off a coal train? Click on this image to see a video of a coal train in British Columbia...you will see HUGE amounts of dust blowing off into a scenic river basin:


Even worse...once the coal gets to China they burn it, producing all sorts of particulates and gases that then moves across the Pacific to worsen regional air quality problems here in the Northwest.  In fact, Professor Dan Jaffe, of UW Bothell, has documented the substantial contribution of Asian pollution to our background pollution levels (see here for one story on this).

So coal trains will greatly contribute to increased global warming and will undermine the health of Northwest residents both from the coal dust blowing off trains and the air pollution that the coal will produce in Asia and which will blow back across the Pacific into our area.

And one more thing---more coal trains will lead to more traffic in many Northwest cities, since there are numerous train crossings on major local roads.

I know what some of your are thinking....if we don't supply the coal, the Chinese will just purchase it elsewhere--with the same impact on global warming and cross-Pacific pollution.  And we lose a big sale!

 I just don't buy it. China is choking is its own pollution, reducing the lifespan of its citizens.  They need encouragement to move away from dirty coal, and facilitating their dependence on this fuel so we can make some money is ethically unacceptable.  You can make good money selling drugs to the addicted, but is it the right thing to do?  Certainly not.  There is a lot of talk about "Clean Coal" in the coal industry, but it is all hype--coal is dirty and no one has developed a technology that can economically remove the CO2 or lessen the air pollution problems it produces.

 Here is the U.S., we are slowly weaning ourselves from coal, particularly as natural gas becomes so cheap and renewable energy is becoming more widespread.  I believe the world is making a major mistake in moving away from nuclear energy.   Nuclear power can be accessed in a safe, clean way and the dumb mistakes of previous installations should not prevent it from taking a valuable role in providing massive amounts of power during our transition to renewable sources.  Yes, radiation is a danger, but so are the proven health and greenhouse warming dangers of burning fossil fuels.  Here is a figure relating the death rates per unit energy for coal, oil, and nuclear, based on statistics found here:
I have looked at a number of sources, and the results are consistent:  nuclear, even with the mistakes made at some locations, is far safer than burning fossil fuels.


  1. Why do they want to take the Coal from Here? They must have tons of it there!

  2. This is one of those trick questions! Why do they need to go to all this trouble when they must have enough coal in China, they just don't want to be associated with such a Bad Environmental Trade!

  3. Before we destroy an industry let's consider the use of scrubbers for pollution control of exhaust stacks. I remember this topic in my Air Pollution classes of the 1970's.

    As far as coal dust being emitted from coal cars, a solution is a lightweight tarp to cover the cars. Why no mention of the pollution emitted from the train engines? Did you notice that in the video? Yes, there are more coal cars than engines but I submitted a solution.

    I would think the bigger problem is automobile pollution in major metropolitan cites across America. Why no mention of that? Could it be no one wants to battle with Big Oil?

    We have burned coal for years and recently this demonization of coal. How trendy. Where in the U.S. is air quality poor due to coal? I would like to know. Seems we can find a middle ground where both sides win.

  4. Thank you for this Cliff.

    I have a special request: Would you mind if I reposted your article in full on Alberniweather.ca ?

    I ask because we in Port Alberni are facing exactly the same threat. There is a coal mine being proposed for the Comox Valley on the East Side of Vancouver Island and their plan is to truck it (or possibly send it by train) 100km to Port Alberni on the West Coast of the Island.

    I think it's pretty powerful that this is happening in both our countries.

    Cheers. And good luck in your opposition. Our local city council has so far NOT come out against the proposal. The best we've been able to do is convince them to advocate for the mind to use the railway instead of sending 3-4 coal trucks an hour over our winding mountain pass 24/7/365.


  5. I realize the issues involved with burning coal -- especially as China does without adequate pollution control technology, but does blowing coal dust from train cars cause environmental issues?

  6. http://video.pbs.org/video/2220864122/

  7. I agree, it's a shame we haven't developed more nuclear power in the US. It contributes zero to the Carbon load in the atmosphere.

  8. KC, China doesn't have nearly the coal resources that we do. What the Middle East is to oil, the midwest United States are to coal. China simply can't keep pumping out energy at their current levels without coal from our side of the ocean.

    Cliff: Thanks for addressing this! Up here in Bellingham, it's been the most prominent topic in local discussion for some time. It would be helpful to have more regional opposition to the trains -- I think a lot of the people opposing the trains up here are getting tired, and feeling as though there's no way to overcome the money on the other side of this issue.

  9. travers: unfortunately you can't scrub out the CO2 from coal stacks and carbon sequestration has been a poor attempt at a bad joke.

    Coal is by far the largest contributor to CO2 emissions in the world.

    I would submit that it's time the Western World look at rebuilding their economies (creating jobs) by rebuilding their infrastructure to produce and effectively use non-CO2 emitting sources of energy.

    The opportunities are vast if we only grab them.

  10. Does anyone know how many coal trains come up from the Portland area weekly? There have been days when I've driven to Portland and seen 4 or 5 en route, all about 130 cars each. So the export is already happening.

    Nuclear? I don't think so! Even if it can be done theoretically safe on paper or in a laboratory, I trust the firms that can build it (and note that these can only build it with a huge bailout from the taxpayer! Wall Street is not interested. Neither is the insurance industry) about as much as I trust a Hedge Fund such as Long Term Capital Management or Lehman Brothers. They will always try to cut corners, save costs, etc. at the expense of safety.

    And then there is the problem of nuclear waste which will remain dangerous for geological epochs. Plutonium has a half life of 24,100 years. Thus half of the Plutonium we generated in the last 60 years will still be around in a time longer than humans have inhabited the Americas. This is a horrid legacy to leave for the future of our species! Note that we are no closer to solving the nuclear waste problem now than we were at any time in the past. And it appears that we will have less and less money to deal with it in the future, the way economies are imploding.

    And then accidents will happen. Our current aging fleet of reactors they want to keep running, rather than face the huge costs of decommissioning. Meanwhile these rusting and corroded hulks of concrete and steel are being held together with duct tape and bailing wire. Its only a matter of time before we have another TMI or Fukushima, this time somewhere in the US.


  11. I support the use of coal, I don't support us sending to our enemies. We should be using it domestically to produce energy and oil based materials and keep our own costs lower to give us an advantage. Drill baby drill, frack baby frack, and mine baby mine. Throw in some solar and wind to make people feel good and maybe someday those industries can compete in the open market.

  12. Coal in the midwest is mined mostly on public lands at giveaway prices. And it is done by super sized heavy equipment and shipped on trains with almost no labor, and then loaded on huge ships in a very automated way. Even then the margins on mining and transporting are pretty thin. There is very little contribution to the US economy for all the pollution etc.

  13. I think the situation is pretty much hopeless. Humans will never do what is necessary to prevent global disaster.

    Many don't agree there is even a problem. Others could care less that there is a problem.

    One thing is clear. In the last hundred years we have burned one heckuva lot of fossil fuel. And the burn rate is going up.

  14. Citizens for a Clean Harbor: Grays Harbor


  15. Interesting and timely- my husband and I drove back to Portland from Puyallup (MEN Fair, doncha know) and I saw one of these things and surmised that it was a coal train because, what else could it be? But we couldn't figure the use, and it sparked a discussion about coal-burning power plants and the fact that Oregon is phasing theirs out.

    Didn't occur to me that it would be something as stupid as sending it to China so that it could revisit the PNW as acid rain, which is what it will become...

  16. It's pretty obvious that burning lots of coal in China would be a complete disaster, both for the U.S. and China.

    I have just one problem with all of this: Everyone is basically saying that China should consider the health and environmental effects of the countries from which it obtains its energy. The fact that this idea is given a voice in the United States makes me either want to laugh or cry. We have no moral authority to tell anybody to lower their CO2 rate or to be mindful of citizens near energy sources.

    "So here we are in the U.S, driving our hybrid cars, expending large amounts of money on renewable energy sources, insulating our homes and business, and working in a dozen other ways to lessen our carbon footprint."

    Yeah, but Cliff, that's not true. You had a whole blog post about how the US (and the rest of the world) was NOT seriously addressing AWG. What is the average carbon footprint per person in Bellingham and Seattle versus that of China? It's my opinion that people in the PNW *sound* green, but actually fall extremely short when you look at the actual lifestyles.

    Consider this: China's bicycle ridership rate has plummeted to 19%. Portland, which is super bike friendly and the national symbol of a city that bikes.... 6%. Seattle is 3%.

    Our only hope is to start walking the walk - the U.S. could once again become the city on the hill where we use our vast amounts of technology and innovation to demonstrate to the world what it looks like to have a strong economy AND a high quality of life for all AND maintain a sustainable carbon cycle.

  17. We are certainly concerned here in Ballard and understand the open bed train cars cannot be covered because they are highly combustible. Currently we have coal trains coming through and you get a creosote odor in the air, so the concerns about increasing the number of trains is very real.

  18. Excellent points, Cliff - I've spent time in Seward, Alaska where there's a relatively tiny coal loading terminal. The dust is everywhere. Not to mention the traffic and safety issues associated with a dozen or more additional trains through downtown Seattle, along the Puget Sound corridor, and through Bellingham. This link has lots of useful information (check out the map route for the trains):


  19. This is simple. Hire the French to provide a grid of Nuclear power plants. They have a proven successful record. Seriously. Hire the French to mine coal for China around the world. Since they only work 34 hours a week and get 6 weeks of mandatory vacation time this should bring worldwide export of coal to a near standstill.
    Finally hire the French to accept and process our nuclear waste since that are already doing it.

  20. http://farm1.static.flickr.com/200/496630333_9b64369c7e_o.jpg
    China's coal production to peak in a couple of years
    2007 Story!
    According to this Chart, we are at the Bottom of the Coal Producing Heap! But the Crux of the Matter is that China has reached it's Production Peak, so who's expected to make up the difference??? The little guy of course, that's how Capitalism happens to Pan Out in the World Economy! Also Corruption and A Disregard for the Environment!

  21. In case no one here noticed, one day last week solar power provided about half of all of Germany's needs. They have the most solar power installations in the world, and they are on about the same latitude as we are. We do need to get storage technology solved, but these are not pipe dreams. Burning our coal in China will only help to usher in more climate catastrophes sooner.

  22. Uranium is limited and would run out. Getting it out of the ground would cause massive pollution. http://thepracticaldilettante.com/2011/04/13/sunk-costs-more-about-nuclear-power/

  23. How about a cloud forecast for the transit of Venus? I'd guess it doesn't look great... might have to wait until 2117.

  24. I won't touch on the whole coal issue, but as for dust, it can be minimized. CPR sprays its coal trains with a latex coating, twice--first at the mine, then again half way between the mines and the port of Vancouver. This second spray station is only 15 minutes from my house. Here's a video on how it is applied: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VFiV55zohC4&feature=related

    It really does the trick. I don't think CN sprays their coal, and the video shows the outcome.

  25. For those who don't like the radiation from nuclear, you might be interested in knowing that coal causes FAR MORE radioactive pollution than nuclear, including accidents. Coal naturally contains thorium and uranium, in very small quantities. And when you look at the total volume of coal burned, the resulting distribution of radioactive pollution is astounding. The coal smoke from China has created more radioactive waste in the US than the Fukushima disaster.

    Here's some reading on the subject:

  26. Wind and Solar are miniscule in terms of their energy density compared to fossil fuels, and that why they don't take hold and are too expensive.

    The solution is Thorium. Never heard of Thorium? Learn about it at the link below, and then spread the word. Much safer than uranium, not possible to use byproducts for weapons, a passively safe technology, with no high pressure steam. A Million times more energy locked in Thorium than in the Carbon energy bonds. Enough of it in the Earth's crust that we would never run out. If you truly want low cost energy that is environmentally friendly, and less dependence of foreign oil and the accompanying political strife, learn more here.

  27. What about covering the load? Here's a NASA study projecting fuel savings from aerodynamic coal car covers that would not only reduce coal dust, but reduce diesel consumption. http://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/20090026079_2009024813.pdf

    Doesn't solve all the problems Cliff poses but it does solve some (assuming, of course, its economical for the transportation provider aka railroad co).

  28. I don't support the use of coal, it harms our environment significantly and causes the communities around the mountaintop removal to be at risk for water and air pollution.

  29. One of our flying friends just posted this video of a coal train derailment near the James River. Thought you might be interested:




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