SHORELINE, Wash. -- Garrett Thompson is waiting for a train, but he's not going anywhere.
As a line of empty freight cars approaches, Thompson moves to an air pollution monitor on the pedestrian overpass near Richmond Beach State Park and begins recording spikes in soot and dust as the train rumbles by. While he's primarily looking for coal haulers, even empty trains are helping build a database aimed at assessing a link between airborne particulates and coal trains.
"In maybe a two- to four-minute time span I'll see a large peak in specific particle ranges, and those are all characteristic to different types of trains," said Thompson, a sophomore at the University of Washington, Bothell.
Thompson is playing a small part in what is quickly becoming one of the most significant questions facing the Northwest -- whether to export millions of tons of coal from at least five port facilities proposed along the Pacific Coast and Columbia River in Washington and Oregon.
As state and federal officials grapple with that question, they are being buffeted with competing appeals from environmentalists, port owners, coal companies, doctors, businesses and residents along rail lines that would carry the coal from Wyoming's Powder River Basin to the export terminals.
The exports will mean potentially twice as many trains traveling through parts of the Northwest as well as additional coal use in developing nations like China and India, contributing emissions of greenhouse gases linked to global warming as well as pollutants like mercury that can travel back across the Pacific Ocean to fall in rivers and streams of the Northwest.
Supporters of the projects say they will provide thousands of jobs in the Northwest and serve as a lifeline for the region's shipping industry as well as domestic coal producers that are struggling to find U.S. buyers.
"This is a huge, multidimensional chess game," said Ross Macfarlane, a senior adviser with the Northwest environmental group Climate Solutions, which is helping to organize dozens of groups opposed to the coal exports.
"And I think there's also a lot of increased national attention to this, as people are recognizing [concerns related to] both climate and exporting of natural resources," he added. "This may very well be the next Keystone."
'There will be additional deaths'
Proposals for the coal terminals are still relatively early in the regulatory process -- it will be at least two years until the first port can get its state and federal permits. But work has been ongoing for months to assess the various public health and environmental impacts the project is expected to create.
Thompson is working with UW Bothell professor Dan Jaffe on the coal dust study, which is in its early stages.
Jaffe said the goal is to understand the characteristics of different types of dust particles created by the varying trains that travel through the Northwest. There is relatively little research on the amount and effect of larger coal dust particles compared with smaller particles emitted by diesel engines on freight or passenger trains, Jaffe said.
"When I looked around, I found that we really didn't know much about the coal dust," Jaffe said in an interview, noting that he had been approached by many people looking for more information before beginning his research at the beginning of this year.
The health effects of smaller particles in diesel exhaust, known as PM 2.5, can lodge deeply in the lungs and are fairly well-known contributors to asthma and premature death in people with heart or lung disease. But the larger particles, PM 10, that are common in coal dust are less well-known, although they have been linked to damage in the airways, Jaffe said.
Jaffe said he hopes to have some initial findings ready for release by this winter, aiming to identify different types of trains by their emissions profiles. He said he hopes to also study exposure rates depending on how far people live from train tracks and link up with health experts to paint a fuller picture on what effect the coal dust would have.
Supporters of the coal terminals have dismissed concerns about the coal dust, noting that railroads and coal companies have committed to coating the coal trains with a sealant to prevent dust emissions. BNSF Railway Co., Peabody Energy Corp. and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen all have put out statements in recent months arguing there is no cause for concern about coal dust.
"None of my members, who operate and work around coal trains 24/7, have reported health issues related to coal dust," Mike Elliott, the union's Washington state legislative chairman, said this spring. "This is a non-issue as far as our organization is concerned."
Even some coal train critics acknowledge there is relatively little to be worried about from coal dust in and of itself. Of more concern to some health experts is increases in PM 2.5 emissions from the uptick in diesel locomotive traffic, an issue that receives less attention from coal export supporters.
"They want to talk about coal dust, they want to talk about coal dust and they want to talk about coal dust. And the reason is, there are not a lot of consequences of coal dust," said Frank James, a physician in Bellingham, Wash.
"They would love if we only cared about coal dust. ... But that's a minor impact compared to diesel particulate matter, or even trains crashing into people on tracks, or the noise impacts," he added.
James is working with a group of other doctors in the area, the Whatcom Docs, on a study assessing the health impacts of sending more trains to the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal north of Bellingham, in Cherry Point, Wash. He said he believes increased diesel emissions in particular will lead to additional deaths in the area, and he hopes the study will allow for a more informed discussion of whether those consequences are worth the jobs that coal exports would bring.
"To really know, we need to do the science. ... I'm convinced from the data I've seen that there will be additional deaths. I don't know how many," James said in an interview at his home in Bellingham. "If it's one or two, I'm sure there's room to talk about that. If it's 100 or 1,000, that's a different discussion entirely. I think we've got to do the science."
BNSF Railway, whose trains would serve the Cherry Point terminal, has been upgrading its fleet to reduce diesel particulate emissions and comply with U.S. EPA rules. This year, it spent $1.1 billion on new equipment, including Tier 3 locomotives that reduce diesel emissions 69 percent compared with older locomotives, according to Suann Lundsberg, a company spokeswoman.
"This effort has yielded one of the industry's newest and most fuel-efficient fleets of road locomotives that is able to pull more freight with less fuel," Lundsberg said in an email. "Over the past 10 years, BNSF fuel consumption has only increased 14 percent, while the volume and distance of freight moved has increased 29 percent."
Long fight ahead
James and his collaborators hope to have the health assessment finished relatively soon, so their findings are included in the ongoing regulatory review for the coal export terminal.
The Army Corps of Engineers late last month launched a scoping process for the environmental impact statement it will complete before deciding on a permit for the Gateway Pacific Terminal in Cherry Point. Environmentalists and some elected officials have called for the Army Corps to conduct a more comprehensive EIS to evaluate all of the pending export projects in the region but have complained they are receiving mixed signals from the federal regulators (Greenwire, Oct. 2).
Whatever the Army Corps decides, the process is expected to be a lengthy one.
SSA Marine, which is developing the terminal in Cherry Point, does not expect to begin operations for at least four or five years, expecting permitting to take more than two years with another two years spent constructing the terminal, said Craig Cole, a consultant on the project. The estimated price tag for the terminal is about $650 million, although that figure also could grow if additional mitigation is required.
"We believe this project can meet Washington's high standards, and the company is prepared to jump through all the hoops to prove that," Cole said during a recent interview from his office in Bellingham.
Opponents of the project are girding for a long fight as well with the issue likely to wind up in court regardless of whether facilities' permits are approved.
"We expect a win, and there's a whole variety of ways that that could happen, including the agencies making the right decision, based on both a good analysis of the law and of the scientific realities and direct impacts, as well as the increased public pressure, and the need for public officials to be accountable to the public," said Macfarlane, of Climate Solutions.
Macfarlane also questioned whether coal demand from Asia would remain high enough to support exports in five or more years, when the projects are ready to actually enter operations.
"There's a lot of questions as to how durable the investment appetite will be for these kinds of proposals -- in the face of regulatory risks, in the face of shakiness and uncertainty in the markets, and in the face of really rapidly changing demand from the Asian economies," he said.
Although coal has played a central role in the drama surrounding Gateway and other export facilities, stakeholders on both sides of the debate say they want it to be about more than that.
Cole pointed out that SSA Marine wants its terminal to export any and all "dry, bulk commodities," for which there is demand abroad, from coal to potash to wheat -- "whatever sells."
Peabody Energy is the terminal's first customer with a contract to export about 24 million metric tons per year of coal, about half of the coal load that could ship from the terminal, Cole said. The terminal could handle up to 54 million metric tons per year of all dry commodities, he added.
"All I can say is this is very complicated, and we're trying to build a shipping terminal that will ship whatever the global markets are demanding," Cole said.
Opponents of the project also are trying to frame their opposition as about more than coal. China's coal-burning certainly is a concern, both for its contribution to global warming and because toxic air emissions from those power plants can migrate across the Pacific Ocean and end up back in the Northwest.
But the battle over coal exports is more than a simple "jobs versus environment" struggle, opponents say, arguing that they are as concerned about localized impacts from increased train traffic, such as the potential for ambulances to get stuck at railroad crossings and be delayed in getting people to the hospital.
"This isn't a jobs-versus-environment issue," Macfarlane said. "This is an issue of having really specific impacts and economic trade-offs and economic harms on some communities that would be caused by proposals that are in many cases only make sense if they're publicly subsidized to create economic benefits for a very small number of companies that would have job and other benefits that are very small."