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How much coal dust will spill in Gorge?

Educator figures its a half ton a year per city lot


by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP FILE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - These chunks of coal from passing trains were picked up in the Columbia River Gorge where the White Salmon River drains into the Columbia. An EcoThoughts writer wonders just how much coal dust will settle in the Gorge if new coal export terminals are allowed in Northwest ports. I love the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, signed into law by President Ronald Reagan.

The Gorge is so important to our water, food, region and nation that Reagan stripped property owners of the right to develop their land. The trade-off for that big-government power grab was a promise to protect the economy and environment of the gorge.

Now Chinese companies want to buy U.S. coal shipped by rail through the Gorge, which is guaranteed to spill into air and water. Shippers know how much. They claim they can reduce it 85 percent by spraying surfactant on coal trains rather than covering them — but 85 percent of what? How much coal per mile will be spilled?

Diesel exhaust from trains is toxic. We can use data on diesel from the Centers for Disease Control, Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to predict how many more American children and adults will get asthma and other respiratory diseases, and how many will die from shipping foreign-bound coal through the Gorge.

Coal shippers claim the jury is out, though, on coal-dust toxicity. They propose to run a life-and-death experiment on U.S. citizens and farms. If it turns out bad, where will people turn for justice?

Shippers won’t say who owns the coal on those trains. Watchdogs suspect China will own it. Do shippers write their contracts so the owner is hard to sue when Americans get sick from spilled coal?

If we know how much coal is proposed to be spilled in the Gorge, we can assess the risk and decide whether our nation is keeping its promise to Columbia Gorge and U.S. residents. 

I’ve taught math. We can estimate. Watchdog groups quote rail company estimates that about 1 pound per car per mile will be lost.

Let’s believe shippers’ claims of 85 percent reduction and round the answer down to 2 ounces per car per mile — an amount about as big as your thumb. It’s a tiny fraction of the approximately 250,000 pounds in one car.

But over 365 days a year, with 20 or more trains daily, and each train having 135 to 150 cars traveling 80 miles, that equals at least 79 million ‘units’ of coal dumped in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area annually. 

If that ‘unit’ is two ounces, that’s 10 million pounds of coal dumped into the air and water every year. 

A farm or a small downtown such as in Stevenson, Wash. — with 2,000 feet of rail line running through it — would receive at least 50,000 pounds of coal dust a year. A 50-foot-wide city lot would receive 1,200 pounds. Imagine that in your yard each year.

That’s the low estimate — based on 15 percent of an average train’s loss. If the real number is closer to 1 pound per mile, multiply those figures by eight. 

That’s a lot of coal. But even at one pound per mile, the wholesale loss is only about $10 per car on the 1,300-mile trip to the port. 

Shippers are correct. It is too expensive to prevent that dust from escaping — for their customer.

So what is the real number? How much coal per car per mile? Shippers, owners — show your work, so we can measure the true cost to the environment from Northwest coal exports.

Andrew Stone is a systems ecologist and educator living in Oregon since 1996. He grew up in a farm town in rural Wisconsin.

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