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Northwest Coal Export Terminals: A Boon to the Economy or a Threat to our Health?

Andy Harris, MD

August 19, 2013

Category: Health > Public Health

Plans are underway for coal from the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana to be transported by train to three proposed export terminals in the Pacific Northwest. All of the coal will be shipped through the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area. The ultimate destination is Asian power plants.

Coal companies' singular argument for coal exports is the creation of jobs. While the construction of port facilities and the building of barges would create some temporary jobs, the loading and shipping of coal is largely automated. Work at the export terminals will be dirty, hazardous to health, and with little long-term job security.

The reality is that coal trains are accompanied by soot and noise, adversely affecting local businesses, property values, and tourism. The trains average 125 cars and are 1 1/4 miles in length, blocking traffic at grade-level crossings for 5-7 minutes. Delays to emergency vehicles — like fire, police, and ambulances — waste precious minutes transporting a stroke or cardiac patient to a hospital.

The Financial Times wrote, on 2/4/13, that we are witnessing "the last gasp of a fuel with no long-term future." When Asia switches from coal to renewable energy sources, will American taxpayers be stuck with the tab to clean up coal-export terminals?

Coal trains need to be left uncovered to lower the risk of spontaneous combustion. How much coal dust blows off the trains? According to a BNSF representative in 2009, 645 pounds of coal dust blows off each coal car during a 400 mile trip, or 40 tons per train on a single trip. Powder River Basin coal is notoriously friable and powdery.

The Columbia Gorge is famous for its beauty but also its wind. The more wind and the more curves in the rail line, the more coal dust blows off the trains. And the more rain, the more coal dust drains onto the tracks, where it gums up the tracks and switches and seeps into the ground water.

Coal dust contains heavy metals like mercury, lead, arsenic, and cadmium. Coal dust is a trigger for asthma, and causes chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Coal also contains polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, some of which are carcinogenic and are associated with lower IQ and childhood asthma.

But worse than coal dust, from a public-health perspective, is diesel exhaust, which causes asthma and heart disease and is a known carcinogen, particularly lung cancer. Nitrogen oxides emitted by diesel engines are a major contributor to smog.

Diesel engines emit very fine particles to which a variety of toxic substances can attach, including benzene, formaldehyde, and 1,3- butadiene, which are linked to cancer, endocrine disruption, and developmental delays. These substances are inhaled down the bronchial tree, where the toxins easily diffuse across the alveolar membranes into the circulation.

For people living within earshot of the tracks, the incessant rumbling of heavy trains, and the piercing whistles, contribute to sleep disorders, hypertension, heart disease, depression, anxiety, and learning disabilities.

Coal-train derailments are not uncommon, at least 18 having occurred in the latter half of 2012, killing four people.

Do we care if dirty coal is burned in Asia? Certainly. If it is too toxic for American children, it is too toxic for Chinese children. Beyond that, what Asia burns in their power plants comes back to haunt us as blow-back of mercury, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, ozone, and 50 other toxic chemicals. These toxics ride the trade winds and settle on our land and wash off into our rivers, lakes, and reservoirs, contaminating the fish we eat and the water we drink.

The mining, shipping, and burning of coal is irresponsible. We know far more about this toxic fossil fuel than we did in the days of Charles Dickens. Coal burning is the leading cause of climate change. To promote coal in the 21st century is to defy the laws of physics and chemistry, to ignore serious health concerns, and to endanger life on the planet.