A new study released Monday by the University of Washington shows coal trains running daily through the Columbia River Gorge pollute nearly twice as much as other diesel-powered freight trains.

The results were trumpeted by environmental groups, though BNSF Railway cast doubts about the study’s objectivity. Organizations such as the Sierra Club and Friends of the Columbia Gorge — which oppose coal exports in the Pacific Northwest — helped fund the research, as well as a similar study published last year examining coal trains in the Seattle area.

Dan Jaffe, professor of atmospheric and environmental chemistry at UW-Bothell’s School of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, led a team of researchers that staked out passing trains near Lyle, Washington — across the Columbia River from Rowena — over a two-month period, and measured tiny particles emitted into the air.

The team identified 293 freight trains and 74 coal trains in its most recent study, and found the coal trains released nearly twice as much pollution on average as the freight trains. Four of those trains also gave off a visible plume of coal dust from the uncovered coal cars, which the study refers to as “superdusters.” That claim is backed by video of the trains posted to the project website.

The findings were recently published in the journal, “Atmospheric Pollution Research.” Jaffe said their testing was done on private property along BNSF rail lines.

“We see, on average, the coal trains are emitting roughly twice as much particulate matter,” Jaffe said. “This is information that should be relevant to any of the trains passing through the region.”

Approximately four coal trains run daily through the Columbia River Gorge on the Washington side of the river. That number would increase dramatically if three proposed coal export terminals were permitted in Washington and Canada: the Millennium Bulk Terminal in Longview, Gateway Pacific in Cherry Point and at Fraser Surrey Docks in British Columbia.

Michael Lang, conservation director for Friends of the Columbia Gorge, said the projects would result in 100 million more tons of coal shipped through the gorge every year and an additional 25-30 coal trains per day.

This study should provide additional evidence that the trains do, in fact, pollute waterways and ought to influence regulatory agencies permitting coal exports, Lang said.

“This is another important piece of evidence in a mountain of evidence that the rail companies are polluting our waterways with coal dust,” Lang said.

Courtney Wallace, regional spokeswoman for BNSF, said the company is still reviewing the study, but pointed to the Sierra Club’s $5,000 contribution to a previous study done by Jaffe. Friends of the Columbia Gorge was recognized as project funder for the 2015 study, along with more than 300 other individuals through a crowdfunding effort.

Wallace said BNSF is on the forefront of coal dust research, and has developed a rule for loading coal on trains that “virtually eliminates any issue with coal dust.”

BNSF also opened a new state-of-the-art facility earlier this year in Pasco, which sprays all coal trains with a second layer of surfactant to prevent dust from escaping cars.

Finally, Wallace said the Northwest Clean Air Agency found no evidence of harmful air pollution levels in samples it collected between February 2012 and September 2013.

BNSF is currently locked in a legal battle with several organizations — including the Sierra Club and Friends of the Columbia Gorge — over whether the railroad is violating the federal Clean Water Act with coal dust pollution. The case is pending in a Seattle federal court.

Across the Columbia River, Union Pacific Railroad typically runs three trains per week of coal to Boardman, home of Oregon’s last remaining coal-fired power plant. That facility, however, is slated to shut down by 2020.

Another developer is fighting to build a coal export terminal at the nearby Port of Morrow, part of the Morrow Pacific Project. Lighthouse Resources, formerly known as Ambre Energy North America, wants to ship 8.8 million tons of coal per year into Boardman, where it would be transferred onto covered barges at the river terminal and sent down the Columbia.

The Oregon Department of State Lands rejected a key permit for the project last year. Lighthouse Resources has appealed, joined by the states of Wyoming and Montana as limited participants.

An appeals hearing was scheduled for Dec. 7-15, but won’t be heard now until Sept. 27-Oct. 6, 2016.


Contact George Plaven at gplaven@eastoregonian.com or 541-966-0825.

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