Tiny particles delay study of coal port proposal

By Floyd McKay
Crosscut archive image.

BNSF diesels pulling coal trains near Bow, Washington, headed for Canada.

By Floyd McKay

They are so small you can’t see them in the air — but you inhale them, and they can go to your lungs and even your bloodstream. They come from many sources, but among them are diesel train engines and coal in trains or storage piles.

Doctors worry about them, researchers study them, and now the microscopic critters — called Diesel Particulate Matter, or DPMs — are delaying the finish of a lengthy environmental assessment of a giant coal-export terminal proposed for Cherry Point in Whatcom County.

Agencies handling the protracted Environmental Impact Statement process say the EIS process has been delayed — perhaps for a year or more — by disagreements over how to study particulates. BNSF Railway’s refusal to share documents and studies with consultants has also contributed to the delay, along with other factors.

The particulate issue is complex because there is very little science on particulates from coal dust, and existing studies are in disagreement. Until recently, it was difficult to differentiate between particulates from diesel emissions and coal dust. But University of Washington researcher Dan Jaffe may have made a breakthrough in that area.

Agencies have called for independent on-site surveys along rail tracks through Washington to develop their own data, according to Tyler Schroeder, Whatcom County’s project director.

With the review stretching out and the needs for additional information emerging, Schroeder is preparing an amendment to the contract with coal terminal’s developer, SSA Marine, for conducting the EIS.

Gateway Pacific Terminal (GPT), which would be the largest coal-export terminal on the Pacific Coast, once hoped to be shipping the first of 48 million tons of coal by 2017. That date may be moving closer to 2020.

When the process of drafting the EIS was announced in mid-2013, agencies hoped the next major step — a draft environmental study — would be done by mid-2015. That deadline won’t be met, by at least a year.

Writing last month to agencies involved in the environmental review, Jennifer Young, a project supervisor for the CH2M-Hill consulting firm, said, “The EIS schedule has been delayed by approximately one year from the original contract assumptions as a result of the delay in receiving studies, information and essential criteria from the applicant. The rail modeling effort was more extensive than previously anticipated due to the need to develop assumptions for information not available from BNSF.” CH2M-Hill is acting as the manager of the overall EIS process.

Some of the blame for the delay can be laid at the foot of others besides the railroad. Consultants knew from the beginning that BNSF would stonewall requests for data, pleading federal jurisdiction over railroads; consultants underestimated the time it would take to start from scratch. Consultants have also asked for additional information dealing with particulates, and SSA Marine, the project developer changed its project design. As the study lumbered along, moreover, several key agency or consultant leaders retired or changed jobs.

The particulate study is especially difficult. There is plenty of data showing that particulates — particularly the microscopic ones known as Particulate Matter 2.5 (PM2.5) — are very toxic. “The science is particularly advanced,” says Frank James, public health officer for San Juan County and a UW professor of public health. “Diesel particulates are very small, more important than large particulates; they get into the lungs but also into the blood stream.”

Those little guys — PM2.5 — make up the majority of diesel emissions. A Massachusetts study found that more than 90 percent of diesel emissions there were that size.

One problem for scientists is in tracking the sources of PM2.5 emissions and differentiating between them and other particles.

The problem plagued Dan Jaffe, a professor of Atmospheric and Environmental Chemistry at UW Bothell, when he conducted site research on Seattle’s waterfront and on the Columbia Gorge; he also has sensors along the rails in Bellingham. Coal trains are unlike others, Jaffe told me, because of weight, number of engines and length. They produce more emissions, for the most part, than trains hauling lighter cargo.

Jaffe, however, thinks he has solved the problem of differentiating between PM2.5 emissions and random coal dust escaping from trains. He’s reluctant to go any further until his peer-reviewed paper is finished. But he says that he has found PM2.5 particulates in coal dust, even though it has generally been held that coal dust is primarily less-toxic larger particulates.

If coal dust is linked to PM2.5 particulates — the type most dangerous to human health — then developers at Gateway Pacific and other coal ports have a problem. The railroads have a ready answer for those who criticize their diesel emissions: Just wait till next year. Like the Mariners, there’s always a next year. In this case, however, federal air quality standards require much-stricter emission controls in 2015 locomotives. The new “Tier 4” standards, which are expected to require exhaust gas after-treatment technologies, are touted to cut emissions by up to 90 percent.

Tier 4 engines won’t happen overnight, however. Railroad blogger Jason Kuehn points out that railroads stocked up on diesel equipment before the 2015 deadline and there will be plenty of old diesels on the rails for some time. He found that BNSF was one of the companies with heavy purchases of 2014 locomotives. CommunityWise Bellingham, a group that is critical of the Gateway proposal and helped fund Jaffe’s research, in 2013 asked agencies to require Tier 4 engines on coal trains at GPT.

Railroads will also pledge to apply surfactants to bind the coal loads so they won’t blow — If cornered, they may even agree to push up their timetable for buying new locomotives and agree to cover coal cars, as some truckers do with gravel.

The question of coal dust from huge storage piles at the export terminal is another matter and, expectedly, there are competing consultants.

Gateway Pacific plans over 80 acres of uncovered storage piles more than 60 feet high. Gateway’s transfer and loading operations will be covered, but the coal pile will of necessity be disturbed on a regular basis, as coal is dumped from trains and then taken away for loading onto ships.

This becomes contentious among consultants. SSA Marine’s chief consultant on air quality, ENVIRON International, says, “The potential for significant environmental impacts from particle deposition onto land or into water would be minimal and unlikely to result in significant environmental impacts.” Coal piles would be treated with “dust palliative chemicals,” which would bond with water from giant water cannons, to suppress blowing coal dust. No additional mitigation measures are warranted or proposed, the major consulting firm says.

Not so, according to Cliff Mass, a well-known atmospheric scientist at UW. He studied the area’s wind patterns under a grant from Research Now, a nonprofit on Orcas Island founded by physicist Michael Riordan and his wife Donna Gerardi Riordan, an educator and administrator in the environmental field. Both have spoken against the Gateway Pacific proposal.

“A key issue for the proposed coal terminal site is that it is at ground zero for the northeasterly winds coming out of the Fraser River Valley — the positioning could not be worse,” says Mass, “And every few years there are extreme events, when the winds gust to 30-70 mph — which would play havoc with the coal piles. Mass points to constant shifting of the coal pile as coal is added and taken away, as a rebuttal to ENVIRON. The two consultants disagree on a lot — Mass believes Cherry Point is a worse site than Westshore just across the line in Canada; ENVIRON says Westshore is worse. ENVIRON deals largely with average wind speeds, Mass emphasizes damage from gusts and high winds.

Both Mass and Jaffe received funding from crowd-funding operations; ENVIRON tapped the deep pockets of SSA Marine. If another study were needed, SSA would also pay for that — EIS costs are billed to the developer.

SSA Marine is a large international firm, based in Seattle, and it is already on the hook for nearly $9 million in EIS costs, plus the heavy costs of hiring its own scientists, such as ENVIRON. The contract amendment headed for approval by the Whatcom County Council will pile on another $2 million, according to Schroeder, the county’s project director.

He expects to finalize the contract amendment in April. More millions will be needed once the draft study is published, and public hearings and preparation of a final draft are added to the bill.

As the project has moved back, the Gateway proposal and other coal-export projects also face greater questions about their financial viability. Coal prices have been falling as production exceeds demand in the United States and big-time customers such as China. While any strain on privately held companies such as SSA Marine is behind closed doors, it certainly cannot be discounted. The state of Wyoming, a huge coal producer, is so worried that it has authorized a state agency to sell bonds to purchase a West Coast coal-export terminal if necessary.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Floyd McKay

Floyd McKay

Floyd J. McKay, professor of journalism emeritus at Western Washington University, was a print and broadcast journalist in Oregon for three decades.