Subject: FYI: My notes on the "Coal Train Impacts in your Neighborhood" Panel Discussion - with Mayor McGinn and Prof. Dan Jaffe

My notes on the “Coal Train Impacts in your Neighborhood” Panel Discussion with Mayor McGinn and Prof. Dan Jaffe Queen Anne Community Center Saturday, May 18, 2013.

I took notes during the meeting and wrote them up the next day. I apologize for any errors.

Left to right: moderator guy, Mayor Mike McGinn, Prof. Dan Jaffe (UW Bothell, Atmospheric Sciences), Katelyn Kinn (legal affairs manager, Puget Sound Keepers Alliance)

At 12:15 as the meeting began, I counted 23 people in the room, almost all of them in their 60s or older, but more people arrived as time went by. Mayor McGinn

Eighteen 125-Car Trains a Day

Mayor McGinn explained that coal trains would come down the Columbia and then up the coast to Bellingham, 18 very long (125-car) trains a day through downtown and Interbay (between Queen Anne and Magnolia).

Two and a Half to Three Hours Additional Railroad Wait Time

This would result in 2 1/2 to 3 hours more time daily in the city when railroad crossing gates would be down. In addition to the effects of the trains themselves, there would be additional substantial effects from the many bulk carrier coal-carrying ships in Puget Sound.

The Importance of the Scope of the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS)

The coal companies want to restrict the scope of the EIS for a coal terminal to the area directly adjacent to the terminal, a few square kilometers. However, the effects of such a project will be much wider and clearly need to be addressed. This is why Prof. Jaffe's work is so important; scientifically sound information on the effects of coal transiting an area can very effectively support a persuasive argument for a wide scope for the coal terminal EIS.

Who Grants the Permits?

Permits for this activity are basically granted by the Federal government. Actually three agencies are involved:

Army Corps of Engineers

Washington State Department of Ecology

Individual counties

Prof. Dan Jaffe

The Effect on Treaties

Dr. Jaffe assured us that there will be an international treaty on climate change in our lifetimes, and the mayor pointed out, in response, that establishing a massive market of North American coal for China would greatly complicate and delay the establishment of a treaty.

Does Pollution From China Reach America?

In response to a question, Prof. Jaffe said that, yes, research has shown that particulate matter from coal being burned in China does arrive in North America, carried across the Pacific on the wind. Dr. Jaffe has developed a special interest in the local and regional effects of fossil fuel burning.

Coal Particulate Pollution and Diesel Particulate Pollution

In terms of pollution from particulate matter, the coal trains present two different problems: one is the larger particulates from the coal and the other is finer particulates from the burning of diesel fuel on the locomotives, which also could contribute in significant ways to the pollution that would be caused by the coal trains.

Fast Coal Dust and Slow Coal Dust

Dr. Jaffe is interested in studying two aspects of the coal dust phenomenon: coal dust from trains going relatively slowly in the city and coal dust from trains going faster as they go through the countryside.

Crowd sourcing the Money for Research

Dr. Jaffe said that he had tried a new approach to funding the research that is needed: he had placed an appeal on a web site called microryza [].

This became necessary because the state had declined to fund the research. If the research can be funded in other ways, it can be used to support a wide scope for the EIS for a coal terminal so long as it the research is scientifically valid. The microryza appeal has been extremely successful.

Katelyn Kinn

Train Cars Are a "Point Source"

Ms Kinn informed us that the Clean Water Act of 1972 covers point sources of pollution; for example, this would include a pipe that discharges effluent into a watercourse but it would not include runoff caused by automobile traffic. She mentioned, however, that the Act specifically included "rolling stock" among its list of types of point sources, and "rolling stock" means train cars. Coal cars have two ways of creating pollution: from dust and particles blown off the tops of the coal cars which, for reasons of fire safety, have no lids and from rainwater that falls on the cars and washes out coal particles from drains in the bottoms of the cars. Later in the meeting, an audience member asked why they couldn't just put lids on the cars. Mayor McGinn explained that piles of coal, in train cars and out, have a dangerous tendency to catch fire, sometimes spontaneously, and the open tops and drains are a safety measure.

Substantial Amounts of Coal Are Lost as Coal Dust

Ms Kinn explained that, from their source in the Powder River Basin to their end point in Vancouver, the coal trains lose somewhere from 500 to 3,600 pounds of coal per train car per trip.

Law Suit in Preparation Against the Coal Trains

Since point sources are included in the Clean Water Act and train cars are defined in the Act as point sources, a coalition of groups is preparing a law suit against the operation of the coal trains as a violation of the Act.

Audience Questions

Participation of Native Americans

A young man, who said he was affiliated with the Comanche nation, asked what steps the panelists had taken to include Native American tribes as partners in addressing the coal trains issue. He remarked that often Native American tribes are not included as full partners in such efforts.

Mayor McGinn stressed in his response that they highly valued the participation of the Native American tribes. For example, plans calls for a rail line across the lands of the Lummi Nation, near Bellingham, and the mayor said that he had discussed the issue with tribal chairman Jake Julius, and that Julius was opposed to the rail line both for environmental and cultural reasons. The land to be crossed includes the burial places of tribal members and Julius asked how we would feel if the coal companies offered to build a rail line for 18 one-and-a-half-mile-long trains a day to go through Washelli Cemetery in Seattle.

The mayor further explained that, although one of the tribes from the interior had applied for permits to export coal from their reservation, the tribes of the Northwest were solidly against such permitting.

Noise and Pollution From Train Maintenance in Interbay

Another audience member told us that Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) has eight facilities nationwide for train maintenance, none of them within a thousand miles of the Pacific Northwest with the exception of their facility in Interbay. You can be sure, he told us, that maintenance on the coal trains will take place there.


An audience member asked a question about jobs associated with the coal trains, and the mayor responded that establishment of a coal terminal will destroy jobs as well as create them and that Seattle is doing a pretty good job of providing jobs, with an unemployment rate of only about 5%.

Mayor's Summary

An International Coal Market Is New

The mayor pointed out that an international market in coal is a new thing; until fairly recently, coal was produced and consumed locally. This market arose quickly, and it can also go away.

Pollution in China

He recounted his visit to Seattle's sister city in China, Chungching, and described the deplorable and unhealthy air quality that he experienced. People no further away than the people in the back of the meeting room are sometimes impossible to see clearly because of the air pollution. Well-to-do Chinese people in these cities install air filters and do not let outdoor air into their houses. The Chinese people, he said, are not going to put up with this forever. China is investing heavily in coal-fired power plants but also in wind and other renewables. They will get out of coal.

After the meeting

After the presentation, several people gathered around Prof. Jaffe. A woman who lives on the west side of Queen Anne and who even now has to clean coal dust-associated gunk off her deck offered to provide her house as a site for measuring instruments for his research. He asked how close she lived to the train tracks. He said that he would probably only need three or four sites for measurement. She gave him a card with her address.

Bob Whitehorn