Let’s be honest: The concern really isn’t about coal dust

May 3, 2013 

Recently environmentalists have been claiming that coal dust poses an environmental risk to the region because coal transits the Northwest by rail. But there is no credible study to support this assertion, and I wonder what the true motivation for making such a claim might be.

I have worked in the Northwest rail industry for the better part of two decades, as both locomotive engineer and conductor, and I regularly speak with other rail workers operating all types of trains across Washington state. Coal trains have transited through the Northwest for decades and have done so without significant complaint or concerns. Despite allegations of coal dust blowing from trains, I have not witnessed it nor have I received any reports of it from our rail union members.

Nevertheless, some environmental groups have portrayed coal trains as creating some kind of “risk” to the Northwest environment, announcing they will sue railroad and coal companies for the dust they claim is escaping from passing trains.

To be clear, before it was announced that several multi-commodity export facilities were proposed for the region (coal being the first commodity to ship), the Northwest Clean Air Agency, the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency and the Spokane Clean Air Agency had not received a single complaint related to coal dust blowing from trains.

So why are coal trains and coal dust suddenly the focus of attention with environmentalists? The answer is that energy companies have shown an interest in exporting U.S. coal to overseas markets and that coal consumption contributes to greenhouse gas emissions.

This is not really about coal trains or coal dust at all. It’s about climate change and attempts to slow this global trend.

I’m all for affordable energy for everyone. Unfortunately, the day hasn’t arrived when renewable sources can supply that. Considering there are approximately 7 billion people on the planet, it’s easy to understand why there is a high demand for an affordable energy source such as coal.

While coal certainly is not the end-all answer to a global energy source for the future, other energy sources are either not affordable, not better for the environment or not plentiful enough to meet the world’s energy needs. When you factor in exploding population numbers and growing industrial needs in Asian markets, one gains a better understanding of the rapidly growing market overseas for U.S. coal.

Let’s be honest about what’s really at issue here for opponents – climate change, not any fabricated train-related threat. The issue of climate change can and should be argued in an international forum where there is a chance to make meaningful progress. Trying to influence what energy sources other countries use by attacking an American industry is futile and grossly unfair to American job opportunities.

We should be supportive of responsible construction projects in the Northwest and follow established procedures for evaluating and permitting those projects. Trying to influence a legitimate process by filing nuisance lawsuits is counterproductive to U.S. industry, job creation and our economy in general.

The middle class of the 1950s and ’60s was, in large part, a blue-collar workforce that built and manufactured right here in the United States. We must remember the importance of these blue-collar jobs, sustain the ones we have and help create more of them.

Responsible projects that meet or exceed today’s environmental standards should not be delayed simply because someone can go down to the courthouse and file a lawsuit. Nor should the environmental bar be set so high it can never be reached. Opponents are free to argue against fossil fuels, climate change and whatever else they want. It is their right. But let’s be upfront in our debate and make the motives behind our arguments clear.

Mike Elliott is the spokesperson for the Washington State Legislative Board for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen. He lives in Tacoma.

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