Coal Goes Off the Rails

Coal dust on the Columbia, plus a half dozen derailments.
This post is part of the research project: Northwest Coal & Oil Exports

It’s been a rough summer for coal trains.

There have already been at least 6 major headline-grabbing derailments, at least one of which was fatal. Then observers in the Columbia River Gorge snapped damning photos of coal trains passing through Columbia Hills State Park in Washington.

Here’s one:

(Photo credit: Columbia Riverkeeper)

That black cloud billowing above the train is almost certainly coal dust.* One would hope that photos like this should put to rest the coal industry’s nonsense that the shipments are clean. Clearly, there are direct and harmful impacts.

Many more photos are available on Columbia Riverkeeper’s Facebook page.

The coal dust was hardly the most egregious recent problem in the Northwest. That honor was taken on July 2 when a coal train derailed near the town of Mesa in eastern Washington; 31 overturned railcars spilled an estimated 6 million pounds of coal.

Less than a week earlier, a coal train had derailed near Junction City, Kansas sending 21 railcars off the tracks and spilling hundreds of tons of coal. In the days that followed the Mesa accident, things only got worse. A coal train derailed in Texas dumping 43 railcars worth of coal onto the ground. Then on July 4, a coal train derailed in Chicago sending 27 railcars crashing from an overpass onto a nearby street where they obliterated a car, killing the two people within. On July 10, a coal train derailed in Indiana. Then on July 15, another coal train went off the rails in Kansas. And on July 16 yet another derailed in North Carolina.

You don’t need to be alarmist to be concerned about the coal export proposals for the Northwest. Operating at full capacity they would bring roughly 29 loaded coal trains into the region each day, 365 days per year. Leaving aside the profound health and climate impacts of burning the coal, the trains themselves would pose a serious risk to public safety.

It’s a problem that demands a solution and yet, so far, the coal industry isn’t acknowledging that a problem exists.


Postscript: One commenter on Columbia Riverkeeper’s Facebook page alleges that the dust in the photograph is from petcoke, a fossil fuel derivative, and not coal. So far, repeated inquiries with BNSF about the precise contents have been met with silence. For more on this topic—including an assessment of whether it’s coal itself that’s causing the derailments—check out Peter LaFontaine’s take on it over at the National Wildlife Federation.

* Update 7/25/12: At the Oregonian, Scott Learn reports that: “… it wasn’t a coal train, BNSF spokeswoman Suann Lundsberg says — the railroad didn’t have any coal trains running past that spot at the time. But it might have been a petroleum coke train…” (Personally, I wish I were more confident in BNSF’s honesty.)

* Update 8/6/12: Yet another coal train derailment, this one on July 29 and it sparked a grass fire.

* Update 8/7/12: Over at NWF, Peter LaFontaine has put together an awesome “Coal Train Tracker” with an interactive map documenting coal train derailments in 2012.

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  1. Paul says:

    I get the coal dust issue and I understand that coal-fired power plants spew tons of pollutants – but how much environmental damage does actual coal create when it spills on land and in the water?

    When I was a kid living on the east coast, we used to collect the coal we found floating in the water. We’d pile it up and it just looked like burnt wood. Didn’t seem to be leaching any chemicals into the water.

    • BobW says:

      Paul, there is more than ample information on why coal is toxic on this website alone. You will need to start educating yourself. Luckily, you already are on one of the most informative/well cited websites to start researching. No one can do that for you.

      • Chris Alemany says:

        Paul is correct.

        Coal is only considered toxic in specific circumstances:

        #1: If it is burned (due to the heavy metals released)
        #2: When it is ‘washed’ out of the raw dirt at the mine (again due to the heavy metals released)
        #3: When large quantities of ultra-fine dust is inhaled for years by miners in very close proximity in the mines. (black lung)

        None of these three conditions happen during transport by train.

      • Chris Alemany says:

        I think that what is pictured here is indeed Petroleum Coke. As you can see in the EPA powerpoint slide here:

        Petroleum Coke is a much different beast from Coal loads and dust and it is identified as such.

  2. pmjw says:

    Wow, I’ve lived near the CPR mainline for over 25 years and have never seen anything remotely close to that amount of coal dust. I know it’s a windy location, but sheesh! Don’t they spray their loads?

  3. Steve says: has reported that BNSF confirmed it was NOT a coal train, by day and time of day and area.

    Explain, if you can, why date of photo and last modified date from photo header, are NOT the same ?

    Software analysis of one of the digital images header information and compression analysis of same conclude that the image has been extensively modified. At the same time, slightly enlarging an image after photoshop work is one technique to “soften” the image ever so slightly, thus making it harder for the eye to detect unusual artifacts.

    I have to wonder what else you are lying about.

    • Eric de Place says:

      I literally have no idea what you’re talking about. The image comes directly from the Columbia Riverkeeper site, as I note plainly in the blog post.

      As you can see, I also note the reporting from the Oregonian that BNSF claims it wasn’t a coal train, but may have been a petcoke claim.

  4. Don Steinke says:

    We still haven’t gotten to the bottom of this. The epa/tribes powerpoint presentation listed above indicates that petroleum coke doesn’t go through the gorge, but bnsf says it does.

    I’m guessing that epa/tribes presentation was limited to impacts to that specific location.

  5. Rudy Caparros says:

    HazMat Experts and Firefighters petition Dow Chemical and Union Pacific for safe rail tank cars transporting gas chlorine. Secondary containment is a necessary improvement that must be implemented. See–PETITION C KIT for First Responders Comments.

  6. Jim says:

    TOXIC TRAIN SAFETY – A First Responders Petition caused The Chlorine Institute to conduct a five-month study comparing the safety of secondary containment to the chlorine “C”-Kit for chlorine tank cars. The study proved secondary containment to be, by far, the safest technology for containing and preventing releases of chlorine gas. To see secondary containment – Search “CHLORTANKER.”

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