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UW professor seeks money to study pollution from coal trains in Whatcom County

A Burlington Northern Santa Fe engine pushes a train load of coal through Bellingham, Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2014.
A Burlington Northern Santa Fe engine pushes a train load of coal through Bellingham, Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2014. The Bellingham Herald

A scientist who uses the Internet to solicit donations for his research on coal trains may bring his work to Whatcom County.

Dan Jaffe, professor of atmospheric and environmental chemistry at the University of Washington-Bothell, said his research is too politically charged to attract funding through the normal government channels. He’s also been the target of criticism from a union that supports the construction of a coal export terminal at Cherry Point.

Jaffe is part of a loosely organized group of scientists that wants to contribute to the environmental review of Gateway Pacific Terminal, now being overseen by Whatcom County and the state of Washington. If approved, the terminal would begin shipping coal mined in Wyoming and Montana to Asian ports in 2019.

Up to nine loaded coal trains a day would arrive at Gateway Pacific Terminal, and nine empty trains would leave. If all 18 trains go through Bellingham, that would more than double the 14 to 16 trains per day the city now sees.

The group that includes Jaffe is studying air pollution, noise levels and traffic congestion caused by trains. The scientists hope to submit results before the county and state’s draft environmental impact statement is completed.

Jaffe’s other work over the past decade has been funded by federal agencies such as the National Science Foundation, the Environmental Protection Agency and NASA. In a video posted by UW-Bothell to YouTube in 2010, Jaffe said he had received $4 million to $5 million in grants in the prior 10 years.

For his study of train pollution in Seattle and the Columbia River Gorge, Jaffe needed to ask “the crowd” of online citizens to contribute $18,000. The crowdfunding appeal was successful after it gained publicity in a column in The Seattle Times.

Jaffe’s Whatcom train study, which he hopes to complete before spring, is posted on the website experiment.com to solicit funds. The project had raised 13 percent of the $12,000 needed as of Friday, Nov. 14.

This fundraising method has exposed Jaffe to criticism. The Seattle project was supported by the Sierra Club and individuals opposed to Gateway Pacific Terminal.

“You have to look at where the money is coming from that’s funding this study,” said Herb Krohn, state legislative director for the Rail Transportation Division of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers Union. “The person that’s paying the piper gets to call the tune.”

Not so, Jaffe said.

“We’re asking basic scientific questions,” he said. “It’s just a set of questions which are important questions that you can answer with data.”

Scientific journals require articles to be reviewed by independent colleagues in the same field before publication. This peer review is what ensures quality control, Jaffe said.

Jaffe’s peer-reviewed article in the April issue of Atmospheric Pollution Research described measurements taken at a private home next to a rail line in Seattle that showed spikes of diesel pollution, as well as what appeared to be coal dust. Trains carrying coal gave off a larger amount of the largest size of dust particle, and Jaffe concluded this was coal dust.

Jaffe’s paper also concluded that a 50 percent increase in train traffic in Seattle would put locations along the tracks at risk of exceeding national standards for air quality. And coal dust isn’t the primary concern. The most serious known health effects come from the smallest particles, which embed deeply in the lungs. They are found in the exhaust from all diesel-powered trains.

The Seattle study was conducted in summer 2013. During the same period, measurements taken by the Northwest Clean Air Agency at the tracks on Cornwall Avenue in Bellingham all were in the “good” range on the federal air quality index. Even a doubling of the number of trains going by the Bellingham site, to factor in the anticipated Gateway Pacific Terminal trains, would have kept the average for that 28-day period well within the “good” range.

In 20 months of data taken at Cornwall, only five days were not “good” but in the low “moderate” range, said Katie Skipper, communications program manager for the Northwest Clean Air Agency.

Eighteen more trains wouldn’t do much to change that, Skipper said.

“I don’t have a computer model or a study, but I’d be comfortable saying that our air quality specialist would not predict elevated levels,” she said.

BNSF Railway said diesel-powered trains, while polluting, are more efficient than trucks. Coal dust is a nonissue, BNSF said.

“Trains move a ton of freight almost 500 miles on one gallon of fuel, which is more than three times as far as trucks,” BNSF spokeswoman Courtney Wallace said. “BNSF also has the industry’s newest and most fuel-efficient fleet of locomotives, and we’re adding 500 new locomotives this year.”

Coal en route from Wyoming and Montana is treated to keep down the dust. The only place dust was a concern was at the tracks near the loading sites, Wallace said.

“BNSF has a vested interest to ensure shippers are in compliance with our coal-loading rule, as coal dust poses a serious threat to the stability of our tracks,” Wallace said. “We believe our operating rule effectively addresses coal dust.”

“Despite decades of hauling coal in Washington, BNSF is not aware of a single complaint lodged with a clean air agency in the state or with the railroad about coal dust, until the recent interest in coal exports,” Wallace said.

A coalition of environmental groups, including Bellingham-based RE Sources for Sustainable Communities, filed a lawsuit in July 2013 against BNSF, claiming coal dust discharged from trains into waterways violated the Clean Water Act.

The trio of scientists pulling together the health studies on coal trains in Whatcom County — Jaffe; noise-pollution expert Rajiv Bhatia of University of California-Berkeley; and Steve White of the Oregon Public Health Institute, who is looking at traffic impacts — aren’t sure how their results will be used by county and state officials drafting the environmental impact statement. They hope to set the standard in areas of study that aren’t thoroughly researched.

Tyler Schroeder, who oversees the environmental impact statement for Whatcom County, said the group is welcome to submit its results. He said he told them what studies the county and state are likely to conduct, so Jaffe and the others can avoid duplication.

“Or, if they decide to duplicate, to confirm what (state and county) agencies come out with,” Schroeder said.

The county and state are likely to include air sampling as part of the environmental review, Schroeder said. They also plan to model traffic impacts. A noise study is likely to be part of the review, Schroeder said.

Contracts to begin work on the environmental impact statement were signed in February, and the draft was said to take 13 months to complete. More than eight months later, it’s hard to pin down an anticipated due date for the draft, Schroeder said on Thursday, Nov. 13. The county and state were still gathering information from BNSF and coal terminal applicant SSA Marine.

“We are just finalizing that information to start the actual writing of the draft,” he said. In the meantime, “the agencies have been doing what we can do.”

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