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Coal ports: Trains’ dust problems swept up?

Coal trains already go to the Westshore Terminals Roberts Bank facility at Delta, British Columbia. Credit: Paul Anderson, Chuckanut Conservancy

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.

Coal opponents, particularly in the Columbia River Gorge, claim residue remains from coal shipments. A coalition filed a lawsuit against BNSF in April, to force the railroad to get water-pollution permits for coal the plaintiffs say impacts area streams and the Columbia. Coal opponents are also concerned about diesel particulates from the multi-engine coal trains, a topic beyond the scope of the STB.

The diesel pollution is not beyond the scope of the environmental review being conducted for the two Washington export-terminal proposals. If the terminals are eventually approved — not a sure shot by any means — some form of mitigation may be required, and that could include measures to reduce coal dust and diesel exhaust. The application of surfactant to reduce coal dust would qualify as mitigation, just as the introduction of new diesel train engines could mitigate some of the exhaust concerns.

In both cases, actions that the company is planning for economic reasons could translate to a public benefit and also give BNSF some good talking point after months when the opponents appeared to be gaining the upper hand in the lengthy coal port debate.

BNSF has worked since 2011 with its shippers to obtain compliance on the use of surficants, BNSF spokeswoman Courtney Wallace responded. She said the board's upholding of BNSF’s coal loading rule is an important milestone in ensuring that coal dust stays in rail cars, where it belongs. Those cars, she added, are generally owned by shippers, not the railroad.

The concept of enclosed coal cars has been discussed from time to time, but not in this case, and no pending cases dealing with the topic are before the STB.

BNSF currently operates about four coal trains a day (full and empty) in Washington, for Powder River coal headed for British Columbia, and Wallace said they use the surfactant. A small coalport planned in Surrey, B.C., would require that coal trains receive a second coat of surfactant before entering Canada; location of the process has not been determined.

The STB’s ruling is effective on Jan. 12, and will apply only to the railroad’s Powder River Basin operations. The effect on other major rail carriers could not be immediately determined, but Union Pacific filed briefs supporting BNSF’s position. “Most STB decisions have some precedential effect,” the agency spokesman said.

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