Coal Dust Pollution, Dirty White Pants, And Coverups: The Consequences Of Exporting Coal

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“No one has ever denied that the movement of trains on rail lines where coal is being moved, that we don’t get particulate and dust matters.”

That’s a statement from New South Wales’ Premier Barry O’Farrell. He is currently fighting charges that the government environmental body in his state in Australia covered up the local impacts of shipping coal from interior mines to export terminals. Coal shipments along rail lines are growing in Australia and the U.S. as demand for export increases. Not many studies have been conducted about the local impacts of the dust on public health, but communities abutting these lines are fighting to bring attention to the matter as they see it as a serious blight on their quality of life.

In Louisiana, Plaquemines Parish residents have filed a lawsuit to try and prevent the building of a third coal yard in their community. The state Department of Natural Resources approved the plan, saying economic benefits outweigh environmental impacts, however locals see things differently.

Cornell Battle, a nearby resident, told a local news station that coal dust coats almost everything in his community. “See how black it is?” he said. “If it’s sticking to the truck like this, this could be your lungs. We can’t even sit on our porch with white pants on.”

The proposed coal export terminal is also slated to be built on a fragile area of the Mississippi Delta currently undergoing extensive restoration.

According to the International Energy Agency, coal exports from the U.S. more than tripled between 2002 and 2012, to 127 million tons. After peaking in 2008, a drop in domestic demand has led to a slight decrease in total production. International demand is expected to continue to grow, but environmental concerns and regulations — as well as cheaper, cleaner alternatives — are forecast to curtail increases in the coming decades.

Al Armendariz, senior campaign manager with Sierra Club for the Beyond Coal campaign, recently told Al Jazeera that there are seven proposals for new coal terminals and seven proposals for expansions in Louisiana, Alabama and Texas.

Coal is also commonly transported domestically to generate electricity, and in 2010 railroads transported over 70 percent of coal delivered to power plants. According to the EIA, “much of this coal is transported in unit trains of 120 coal cars going from a single mine to a single power plant over distances that can exceed 1,000 miles.”

A crowd-funded study published by a University of Washington-Bothell professor in November found that coal trains are contributing to the Northwest’s air pollution.

“We did find an increase in large particles in the air when coal trains pass by and it does suggest that it’s coal dust and it’s consistent with coal dust from those trains,” Dan Jaffe, the UW scientist conducting the study, told Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB).

Coal dust contains arsenic, mercury and other particulate matter. A spokeswoman for BNSF Railway told OPB that reducing coal dust is an important issue that they are currently studying. In 2009, BNSF Railway publicly testified that a coal car can lose up to 645 pounds of coal dust during a 400-mile journey. Industry estimates have also put the number at around 3 percent, or up to 500 pounds of coal dust per car per 500 miles.

Also in November, Washington State voters elected officials likely to reject plans for a new coal export terminal that would require coal be shipped through the state from Montana and Wyoming.

“A groundswell of environmental activism in Washington and Oregon has so far blocked every major proposal,” reported Al Jazeera last month about new coal terminals in the region. “Environmentalists there have convinced state governments that the terminals aren’t worth the increased industrial blight, the health problems associated with coal dust and the degradation to natural resources associated with carting millions of tons of coal through the region and then across the ocean.”

Across the ocean in Australia, another crowd-funded study recently found that dust increases by between 200 and 1200 percent when coal trains pass. The release of the study, which was conducted by the Coal Terminal Action Group, coincided with an Australian Senate recommendation that states require coal cars to be covered.

The study took place in the Hunter Valley, through which coal is transported to Newcastle, New South Wales, one of the largest coal ports in the world. The Hunter Community Environment Centre (HCEC) recently launched a petition calling on Premier O’Farrell to instruct industry to cover their coal cars.

O’Farrell is embroiled in another controversy involving the HCEC in which the group has accused New South Wales Environment Minister Robyn Parker of covering up evidence relating to the amount of air pollution coming from coal trains. After obtaining thousands of government documents under freedom of information requests, the HCEC says that Parker was part of a systematic coverup of the evidence, and that her team drafted a press release stating that coal trains did not increase pollution even before seeing the results of a study into the matter.

In the U.S., efforts to keep coal dust down have resulted in the growing use of surfactants, or topper agents, that reduce dust during rail transport by up to 85 percent by creating a crust on top of the load according to BNSF. In December, the Surface Transportation Board accepted BNSF’s evidence of the effectiveness of the process, ruling that a railroad can require coal customers to use toppers on their cars. However the Sierra Club contends that surfactants don’t ensure that coal dust won’t escape, and that chunks of the topper can fall off during transport.

There’s also the risk of trains carrying coal derailing, which can immediately devastate an area and require extensive, long-term clean up. In January, a coal train traveling from Wyoming to Wisconsin partially derailed, as did another coal train in British Columbia.