Professor’s Latest Study Misses the Mark

The hastily completed 6-week air analysis ignores critical facts about rail investment in Washington’s economy

SEATTLE— A new air quality study rushed to completion in order to sway public opinion against the expansion of bulk-commodity trade terminals in Longview and Bellingham is based on questionable analysis and ultimately adds little substance to the legitimate scientific debate. Paid for by groups opposed to growing trade infrastructure — including activist organizations like the Sierra Club and Friends of the Columbia Gorge, and crowdfunded donations — the latest attempt by University of Washington professor Dan Jaffe to confuse the public falls flat on arrival.

“The state’s own clean air consultant, the Northwest Clean Air Agency, has conclusively found no evidence of harmful air pollution levels from coal trains,” said Kathryn Stenger, the spokeswoman for the Alliance for Northwest Jobs & Exports. “The previous 20-month monitoring reflects objective, sound research as opposed to this latest advocacy driven, opposition-funded, and clearly misleading review compiled during a 6-week period by Mr. Jaffe and his allies in the fringe environmental movement.”

The Alliance wasn’t the only one calling into question the parameters of Mr. Jaffe’s review. As reported by Oregon Public Radio, “The study wasn’t long enough to prove these trains are breaking clean air standards. It lasted only six weeks, and the Environmental Protection Agency requires three years to prove violations.”

In a 2014 interview, Jaffe himself discredited his own attempts to prove hazardous levels of particulates caused by coal dust. When asked about coal dust found near homes along the rail line, Jaffe stated: “That seems to be a non-issue.”

Added Stenger, “As he attempted unsuccessfully in 2014, Mr. Jaffe continues to recklessly misrepresent scientific findings in pursuit of a misguided political agenda —this is not only bad science, it is bad policy. Washington citizens deserve accurate, scientifically-based information on this issue.

“Professor Jaffe’s announcement this week does little to change the conversation about the proposed terminals or the infrastructure used to transport commodities each day to our ports and points beyond. The reality is, the science proves coal dust is not an issue. This was nothing more than a quick hit designed to instill fear and cast doubt on these the proposed terminals. Science wins out.”

Additional studies support the findings of the Northwest Washington Clean Air Agency, including:

  • Missoula City-County Report: 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.
  • Australian Rail Track Corporation study /Professor Louise Ryan: Professor Ryan found that there was about a 10 percent 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.
  • Spokane Clean Air Agency: When questioned as to whether 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.”

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.
  • Members of the Alliance have been at the forefront of research into the issue of coal dust escaping from loaded coal cars on rail lines in the Powder River Basin (PRB), which is located in Wyoming and Montana. For example, Alliance member BNSF has developed a coal loading rule that virtually eliminates any issues with coal dust – both at the mines and in the Pacific Northwest. BNSF’s coal loading rule is two-fold: coal must be loaded so that it utilizes an aerodynamic “bread load” shape that reduces issues with wind and then an approved topping agent must be applied. The topping agents are like glue and have been identified during their testing, and now through years of operations, as effectively controlling dust.
  • Separately, to add another redundant layer to an already effective mitigation program, BNSF recently opened a state-of-the-art re-spray facility at their Pasco, Wash., yard. Now all unit trains of coal traveling through Washington receive a second spray of one of the approved topping agents, furthering enhancing the coal dust program.


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