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Research shows coal dust escapes from trains

New research results suggest coal trains are contributing to the Northwest’s air pollution.

That’s according to the preliminary results of a University of Washington atmospheric and environmental scientist’s crowdfunded study.

“We did find an increase in large particles in the air when coal trains pass by and it does suggest that it’s coal dust and it’s consistent with coal dust from those trains,” said the UW scientist, Dan Jaffe. He released his preliminary research results Nov. 4

Jaffe gathered air quality samples at two sites next to train tracks in the Northwest. He tested 450 trains as they passed - roughly 10 percent of which were carrying coal.

One of the sites is in the Columbia River Gorge, the other is in the Blue Ridge neighborhood of north Seattle, on Puget Sound. The monitoring devices were placed within 30 meters from the train tracks.

Coal dust contains arsenic, mercury and other contaminants but little is known about how dust from trains could impact people who live nearby. Public health officials in Washington have raised concerns about coal dust and called for more monitoring.

The issue of coal dust escaping from trains is not a new one for BNSF Railway, the company that would transport coal from the mines of Wyoming and Montana to the terminals in the Northwest.

“We are committed to reducing coal dust as an issue, which is one of the reasons we’ve been studying coal dust for nearly 10 years,” said Courtney Wallace, a BNSF Railway spokeswoman.

BNSF Railway has publicly testified that up to 645 pounds of coal dust can escape from each train car on a 400-mile journey. The company now requires coal companies to spray surfactants on the cars, which BNSF says reduces the amount of dust that escapes.

Wallace said the company has no plans to cover the coal cars.

She acknowledged that Dan Jaffe’s findings could be considered in the overall environmental review of the proposed coal terminals, which will be conducted by state and federal agencies, but pointed out that his research was crowdfunded and it hasn’t yet been peer reviewed.

“How is it being done? How is it being funded? What standards are in place? Who is involved in that? So [crowdfunding] is a really new concept when it comes to scientific research,” she said.

Jaffe dismisses those concerns and said he felt he owed it to the 250 people who funded his research to get them results as soon as possible.

“I’ve published over 120 papers in the scientific peer-reviewed literature. I know the drill. If I didn’t feel our results would hold up to peer review scrutiny there’s no way I’d be releasing them now.”

It could be at least two more years before the full environmental reviews of the coal terminals are complete.