Why Friends Opposes Coal Export

Negative impacts include air pollution, coal dust contamination of lands and waterways, delays at at-grade crossings, and climate change

Why Friends Opposes Coal Export
Coal dust blow-off along Burlington Northern railroad tracks litters the shoreline of the Columbia River in the eastern Columbia Gorge. (Friends of the Columbia Gorge photo archive)

Coal export does not provide any additional energy to our community and it comes at a terrible cost to our health, environment, and public safety.

If coal export plans in the Northwest were to go forward, dozens of additional loaded coal trains, each more than one mile in length, would have moved through the Columbia Gorge every day. Coal is transported from its source in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming in open-top cars and each car loses about one pound of coal per mile. The resulting toxic coal dust, in addition to diesel emissions from locomotive engines, poses a huge threat to air quality, water quality, plant and wildlife habitat, and human health in the Gorge.

Rail capacity through the Columbia River Gorge is near its limit. To accommodate this significant increase in rail traffic for more coal terminals, new tracks would likely need to expand into environmentally sensitive areas. River access would be effectively cut off at many sites due to increased rail traffic and the accompanying delays would hurt local businesses and risk potentially delaying arrival of emergency vehicles such as fire fighters and paramedics.

Friends Opposes Coal Export Through the Gorge Because:

A “superduster” coal train emits plumes of coal dust as it rolls through the eastern Gorge. (photographer: Julie Coop)

Coal trains are dirty

BNSF Railway has admitted in its own documents that each coal car loses between 500 and 2,000 pounds of coal dust in transport from the Powder River Basin, or about one pound per mile. With 120 cars per train, each coal train loses about 10,200 pounds of coal as it travels 85 miles through the Gorge.

Currently, there are several coal trains per week traveling through the Gorge. Evidence of escaped coal dust and debris can be found throughout the Gorge near railroad tracks, and particularly in the high-wind areas of the eastern Gorge. Every coal train passing through the Gorge is polluting sensitive plant and wildlife habitat, wetlands, tributary streams and the Columbia River with coal dust and debris.

According to a report released by the University of Washington in October 2015 and published in Atmospheric Pollution Research, pollution from coal trains is nearly double that of freight trains. Researchers led by Dr. Dan Jaffe used video cameras to identify train type and speed coinciding with emission spikes; according to the study, one in every 20 coal trains in the Columbia River Gorge is a “superduster” that releases large visible black plumes of coal dust from the uncovered coal cars.

Now imagine if dozens of additional coal trains traveled through the Columbia Gorge each day.

Watch Johnny Cash tribute band Counterfeit Cash bring the coal export issue to musical life in the “Coal Train Blues” video (click on image to play):
  (Note: This video was produced before the withdrawal of coal terminal projects at Boardman, OR, and Cherry Point, WA.)  

Coal trains endanger health and safety

Whatcom Docs and Physicians for Social Responsibility have detailed the impacts of trains and coal dust on human health, including:

Coal trains pollute the Gorge and its communities 

Every coal train passing through the Gorge pollutes sensitive plant and wildlife habitat, wetlands, tributary streams and the Columbia River with coal dust and debris. Based on data from railroad companies, each coal cars loses and average of one pound of coal per mile.  Much of this coal ends up in the Columbia River and its tributaries in violation of the federal Clean Water Act. Under this law, each coal car is treated as a point source of pollution that is subject to Clean Water Act protections. Friends of the Columbia Gorge, Sierra Club and other groups filed a lawsuit in federal court 2013 to force BNSF railroad to stop polluting our public waterways with coal pollution. This lawsuit was settled in November 2016.


A coal train passes through the Gorge as a bald eagle perches overhead. (photographer: Marge Gale)

The increase in coal train traffic would harm the Gorge’s scenic, natural, and recreation resources

Clouds of coal dust and diesel emissions would impair visibility in the Columbia River Gorge and constant coal traffic would mar scenic views. River access would be effectively cut off at many sites by trains. The Columbia Windsurfing Association and the Columbia Gorge Kite Boarding Association have passed resolutions outlining their significant concerns with these projects. Coal dust adversely affects sensitive plant and wildlife habitat .Rail expansion to accommodate coal (and oil) trains would destroy habitat for native plants and sensitive, threatened and endangered species habitat.

Coal export would negatively impact the local Gorge economy 

Excessive train delays block access to downtown businesses in some communities while frequent train and whistle noise lowers property values. Gorge visitors are less likely to stay or buy property in adjacent communities due to quantity of rail traffic and related coal and diesel pollution. And the coal export venture is a risky one: Asian markets are volatile and previous attempts to export coal from the Northwest have failed.

Coal export harms tribal treaty rights

From blocking fishing access to harming cultural resources, coal export by rail through the Gorge is opposed by the Columbia Basin Treaty Tribes and many tribes throughout the Northwest. The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Act requires the protection and enhancement of cultural resources.

Coal burning has global environmental impacts

Air pollution from Asia drifts to the Northwest in as little as five days and 18-24% of the mercury pollution detected on Mt. Bachelor can be traced back to coal power plants in Asia. No matter where coal is burned, it is a dirty and dangerous form of energy and the leading cause of catastrophic climate change. We have made huge strides toward ending reliance on coal in the Northwest, but if we do not act globally the impacts of climate change will be irreversible. According to a Greenpeace International report, coal export constitutes one of the largest threats to climate in the world, and the biggest climate threat in the U.S.


Power Past Coal coalition, of which Friends is a member
Columbia Gorge Climate Action Network
Articles about coal export by Sightline Institute, a Seattle-based nonprofit think tank

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