Seattle, Wa., March 5, 2014 —A blog post by University of Washington Professor of Atmospheric Sciences and weather blogger Cliff Mass, cites new research suggesting that coal-carrying rail traffic “degrades air quality” in our region via escaped coal dust and diesel particulates. The study, conducted by University of Washington (Bothell) Professor Dan Jaffe, was underwritten by “crowdfunding” and, per Mass, was initiated by him using the weather blog as a platform to rally donors to fund the report.
The problem? Dr. Jaffe’s study offers no data linking coal dust to air quality: When asked about the effects of coal dust, he stated: “That seems to be a non-issue.” [See http://science.kqed.org/quest/2013/11/11/kickstarting-science-crowdfunded-research-explores-potential-health-impacts-of-coal-trains/.] And diesel particulates from coal trains have been shown to be among the least contributors of particulate emissions.
Kathryn Stenger, spokesperson for The Alliance for Northwest Jobs & Exports, remarked that “Dr. Jaffe’s study failed to find the smoking gun of coal dust and diesel particulates that it was looking for, but ignores its own findings. To continue to misrepresent scientific findings in pursuit of a political agenda is not only bad science, it’s bad policy. Washington citizens deserve accurate, scientifically based information on this issue. This study’s findings didn’t fit Jaffe’s hypothesis, but continue to be presented as if they did.”
The undisputed facts remain:
- Trains carrying coal have crossed the Pacific Northwest en route to Canadian ports for decades; until permits were filed for construction of marine terminals to handle coal in the Pacific Northwest, no state, local, or regional clean air agency had received any complaints about coal dust.
- Of the 13 activities monitored by the Washington Department of Ecology (DOE) as sources of particulate emissions, locomotives rank among the three smallest contributors. According to the DOE’s Comprehensive Emissions Inventory Summary, trains only contribute 0.8% of the state’s total PM2.5 emissions (fine particulate matter).
- Locomotives are four times more fuel efficient than trucks, and only account for 0.6% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
- Moving freight by rail instead of truck lowers greenhouse gas emissions by 75 percent – making rail an important part of Washington’s effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. There is no question that rail traffic is the “greenest” source of ground transportation.
In addition, several studies refute the coal dust issue including:
- A preliminary study conducted by the Missoula City-County Health Department concluded that coal dust constituted only about 5 percent of particulate matter surrounding a rail line commonly used to transport coal
- “This dust for the most part isn’t a significant or measurable percentage of pm 2.5, which we have most concern with,” Missoula City-County Environmental Health Director Jim Carlson
- Professor Ryan found that there was about a 10per cent increase in particulate matter from loaded and empty coal trains and freight trains compared to background levels. She found that there was no evidence supporting differences between loaded or empty coal trains and freight trains with respect to associated levels of particulates. An important aspect of Professor Ryan’s work was her suggestion that diesel emissions, rather than coal dust, from locomotives may be a significant contributing source of particle levels.
- When question on if the Agency was concerned about coal dust from uncovered trains they responded, “After reviewing how coal dust is treated once it is loaded, Spokane Clean Air is fairly confident that this will not be an issue for local quality impacts. The potential for coal dust emissions is greatest at the point of loading and unloading, which is not occurring in Spokane County.”