Coal Trains: Bad for the Northwest Environment

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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 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.

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