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    Coal ports: Trains' dust problems swept up?

    A federal board's ruling on coal dust could end helping backers of proposals to export coal through Pacific Northwest ports.

    Shipping terminals and mining companies hoping to ship coal to Asia from the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana gained some political and public-relations traction this week with a ruling by the Surface Transportation Board a railroad can require its coal customers to apply topping to open coal cars to reduce the escape of coal dust.

    The Surface Transportation Board, in a decision announced Tuesday, accepted BNSF railway’s evidence that the surfactant reduced coal dust by at least 85 percent on the giant unit trains that ship coal across the country and to Canada. New export terminals have been proposed in Washington state at Longview and north of Bellingham. A smaller terminal is proposed on the Columbia River near Boardman, Ore.

    Although the STB's ruling is based on an economic dispute between BNSF and its coal customers, it buttresses the railroad’s contention that concerns about coal dust from shipments to new terminals can be dealt with through mitigation — in this case the spraying of a surfactant on loads of coal when they leave the Powder River Basin on mile-and-a-half-long coal trains. Critics of the export proposals have long complained about health and environmental risks for coal dust from passing trains.

    “The costs of mitigating coal-dust emissions were concerns that the shippers raised,” a spokesman for the federal board said. The coal shippers asked the agency to require BNSF to reimburse them for the cost of applying the surfactant, but the board handed shippers the check.

    “We believe that the cost of spraying these selected topper agents is not unreasonable, because the measure is designed to promote reliable rail transportation services,” the board said in a lengthy ruling.

    Picking up the tab to meet BNSF’s regulation adds another nickel and dime to what coal experts say is a very thin margin of profit to ship Powder River coal to China, the biggest of the Asian markets. Sightline Institute, a Seattle think tank that opposes the coal exports, follows these trends carefully and in October painted a painful picture of the prospects for Powder River exporters under present market conditions.

    That situation is of concern to BNSF — coal is the company’s major commodity — but the political gains of being able to use the STB as evidence of its concern about the public good is good news, even if the ruling has everything to do with economics and nothing to do with widespread concern about coal dust and diesel exhaust.

    BNSF has tried since 2011 to impose rules on shippers to reduce coal dust, particularly near the mines, where most of the coal dust escapes, sometimes causing problems on tracks and leading to derailments. In a posting on its website at that time, the company stated that from 500 pounds to a ton of coal escaped from every loaded car in transit. Near the Powder River Basin, the railroad said, “In many areas, a thick layer of black coal dust can be observed along the railroad right of way and in between the tracks.”  Until this week's ruling, however, the STB had resisted allowing BNSF to require the surfactant. 

    No mention is made in the ruling — nor was the board asked about — the health concerns of people living near railroad tracks. Frank James, San Juan County health officer and a leader in Whatcom Docs, a coal-export opponent, told Crosscut, “This is a fight between Burlington and its shippers. The public interest was never argued.” He noted that the ruling doesn’t address the problem of leaching coal residue from empty cars returning to the mines, a particular problem in the rainy season.

    A cursory examination of the Material Safety Data Sheet required for the surfactants indicates relatively minor hazards to those handling the topping agents and no apparent danger to the public; a source familiar with the data said he found them "relatively benign" but stressed that the railroads are constantly testing ways to deal with coal dust, so a blanket statement of their safety is impossible. Crosscut's review was of GE's Dustreat product and Midwest Industrial Supply's Soil-Sement coal car topping.

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    Posted Fri, Dec 20, 1:43 a.m. Inappropriate

    This isn't about coal dust or diesel pollution, and everyone knows it.


    Posted Fri, Dec 20, 9 a.m. Inappropriate

    So then it's about what exactly?

    Newest performance art piece in 3, 2, 1.....


    Posted Fri, Dec 20, 1 p.m. Inappropriate

    It's about smug Seattle "progressives" thinking they'll be telling China what fuel to burn to make their iGadgets


    Posted Fri, Dec 20, 2:40 p.m. Inappropriate

    yea. Anyone living near the tracks has no public health concern regarding the massive amount of coal train traffic. No reason to get concerned, noting to look at, keep moving along.

    But if you owned property along the routes we hear more of how "progressives" are interfering with your life. Sheesh.



    Posted Mon, Dec 23, 12:31 a.m. Inappropriate

    Tracks, you say? You mean like the ones that the "progressive" bicyclists are always falling on (and then bitterly complaining about) because they are too stupid to remember what every child knows, which is that you cross at a 90-degree angle? Those tracks, would they be?


    Posted Mon, Dec 23, 9:45 a.m. Inappropriate

    Yawn. Claim gets demolished. Chaff ensues. Repeat.


    Posted Thu, Dec 26, 8:46 a.m. Inappropriate

    Hint: If you continue rewarding and encouraging population growth there will be more of everything, from coal trains to polluted estuaries in Puget Sound. Believe it or not.

    Posted Thu, Dec 26, 5:38 p.m. Inappropriate

    heres the point..the story is 6 days old.."only the lonely" have responded..its called a tempest in a tea pot..build the damn terminal..

    Posted Fri, Dec 27, 9:34 p.m. Inappropriate

    My understanding of the dust-suppression coating (surfactant) is that it can blow off during strong winds. Consider a train full of coal moving westward at 50 mph through the Columbia Gorge during summer. The wind during summer opposes the train's motion, blowing eastward at typically 50 mph. This Gorge wind is forced by the warm rising airmass in the interior drawing wind from the coast. This wind is the reason for the Gorge being a wind-surfing mecca. The two speeds add to make a 100 mph relative air speed of the air past the dust-suppression coating, capable of peeling it away. The train then continues to the westside of Washington and is effectively non-dust-suppressed. The surfactant layer has been ablated. There have been eyewitness reports of this kind of dust event in the Gorge. You might want to check with Professor Dan Jaffe, UW/Bothel, who has conducted research on coal dust and recently reported on it. The only feasible approach to stopping this would be to cover the coal with a real barrier.

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