What 8 Million Tons of Coal Looks Like

A coal pile taller than Portland's tallest building.

Eight million metric tons. That’s how much coal the so-called Morrow Pacific coal export project proposes to move through two port terminals along the Columbia River each year. That’s more than 4,500 pounds per Oregon resident, every year, year after year after year.

Numbers of such staggering proportions can be hard to visualize. That’s where handy graphics like the following can help:
That’s right, 8 million metric tons of coal could make a pile higher than Portland’s tallest building: a heap of 549 feet tall and more than 1,500 feet wide, covering an area of roughly 29 city blocks. That helps put the Morrow Pacific export plans in perspective, I think. We’re not talking about a small amount of coal, but about a substantial volume of coal that, when burned, would meaningfully contribute to global climate change.

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  1. Melanie Hiris says:

    I went to Syracuse Univeristy and lived on campus with a coal burning plant nextdoor. I would clean the screens and within hours the screens would literally be BLACK with sut. Just think of my lungs! People (poor) that were forced to live there were stuck in this situation and proabaly lived short lives as a result. Why do men want to do this to his neighbor? This is not right and should be changed. Treat each other with the respect that we all deserve. Dont be a parasite, be a creator of better change!

  2. Steve Erickson says:

    I did some rough calculations and concluded that 50 million tons of coal per year (the approximate volume of each of the Bellingham and Longview proposals) would occupy 1,886,792,453 cubic feet, or enough coal to cover 43,315 acres (67.7 square miles) one foot deep every year. That’s enough to cover all of Whidbey Island (where I live) 1 foot deep in coal in less than 3 years.

    The key assumption is that the shipped material has a density of 53 pounds per cubic foot.

    • Clark Williams-Derry says:

      Nice! It’s kind of astonishing how much coal we’re talking about here — and that’s a great comparison!

      I can’t recall off the top of my head my assumptions for coal density, but it was close to yours. I have in my head that I used 50 lbs/cubic foot, which was a figure I had found for sub-bituminous coals.

  3. Ben says:


    Can you clarify the formulas used? I am not getting the same answer.

    The stated density is 50 lbs / cubic-ft.
    The stated height of the cone is 549 feet.
    The stated diameter is 1/3 of a mile.
    The stated mass is 8,000,000 metric tons.

    Conversion factors and constants
    2,204.6262 lbs per 1 metric ton
    Pi = 3.1415926535…
    5280 feet per mile

    Volume of a cone = 1/3 * Pi * r^2 * height
    Radius = 1/2 diameter

    Radius = 1/2 diameter = (5280/3) / 2 = 880 ft
    8,000,000 metric tons = 17,636,980,960 lbs
    Volume = (1/3) * Pi * (880 ft squared) * 549 ft = 445,211,431 cubic-ft

    Density = lbs per cubic-ft
    Density = 17,636,980,960 lbs / 445,211,431 cubic-ft
    Density = 39.6 lbs per cubic-ft

    The calculated density of 39.6 lbs per cubic-ft does not equal the stated density of 50 lbs per cubic-ft

    The volume at stated density of 50 lbs per cubic-ft =
    17,636,980,960 lbs / (50 lbs / cubic-ft) = 352,739,619 cubic-ft

    The height at stated density
    Height = Volume * 3 / Pi / (radius squared)
    Height = 352,739,619 cubic-ft * 3 / Pi / (880 ft squared) = 435 feet.

    The height of the pile at the stated density is 435 feet, not 549 feet.

    • Clark Williams-Derry says:

      Weird! I’ll check my calculations!!

    • Clark Williams-Derry says:

      OK, so I get:
      volume of a cone = 1/3 * pi * radius^2 * height
      1/3 * pi * 784^2 * 549 =~ 353M cubic feet of coal

      At 50 pounds per cubic foot, that’s 17.636 billion pounds of coal, or 8.82M short tons, or 8M metric tons.

      It looks like the difference is that we rounded the diameter up to a third of a mile. Actual diamter is 1,568 feet.

  4. Me says:

    It is so troubling how everyone wants to shut down coal and coal burning power plants, and yet there are constant brown outs and black outs that when there isn’t enough power available for all of these environmentalist they are the first to bitch about it. You can’t have you cake and eat it too. If you want to have power that you can afford to pay for and enough for everyone then some coal is going to have to be used. Go ahead and put up all the windmills and solar panels you want but you power is going to be unaffordable and undependable. And even more so if the United States was to suspend all coal use in this country you would still have China, Mongolia, South Africa, Poland and others that are not going to back off their coal use and put themselves back in the dark ages when they are trying to climb to the top. Be reasonable and understand that every time you turn your lights on it is relative to coal and reliable sustainable power that it provides. Many of these power plants that are in current operation have had new systems built onto them to capture a lot of the harmful emissions that are by-products from burning coal. And every day there are people who are dedicated in coming up with better solutions to make these power plants that all of us depend on cleaner and more efficient. Don’t be a hater on something that you see but have a very limited knowledge base of.

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