New complaints about coal trains | OPINION

Evening news squibs showed Seattle and Edmonds demonstrators complaining about coal trains. Does it take them that long to take notice or are big-city folks just slower to react than our sort of country bumpkins? The oddest part was the focus of their complaint.

Coal dust. Concerned parents said they were terrified that children might inhale dust blown from open-hopper cars. They complained that the rail corridor is becoming toxic from coal particulates. Coal producers couldn’t be happier about the coal dust issue because, aside from being bogus, it distracts critics from the larger concerns, that of traffic stoppage. And the even larger issue: combustion.

The dust argument is empty. Coal trains from Wyoming are swept free of dust while racing across dry plains before crawling along damp Puget Sound. Dust at the top of loads is blown away before the trains get here, long before Puget Sound’s drizzly convergence zone damps down what might remain. As to dust-stirring speeds, any passenger on the slow route to Vancouver knows that slower coal trains would come in second to a fast horse.

The few coal cars it takes to fuel local needs are a minor bother but the endless crossing-blocking trains that fuel Asia’s industries impede fire trucks, ambulances, emergency aid vehicles, police, commercial vehicles, buses, commuters and shoppers. They act as valves that periodically shut down east-west traffic.

Coal haulers try to minimize the number of trains by maximizing loads. At 143 tons per car, or about 40,000 pounds per wheel, coal cars punish the roadbeds that carry them —but leave that worry to Warren Buffett, owner of BNSF. Our immediate worry is stoppages, not dust.

If the dust argument is debunked, public outrage swings back to blockage of traffic at crossings. This real here-and-now issue gets far more traction in media blasts than in law. In case after case, rail operators’ right to block traffic is confirmed. Public energy might be better spent attacking the more serious long-term issue of combustion in which coal trains are symbol and substance. We should be asking, how does unfettered burning of fossil fuels affect us?

Obviously, the coal is being sent to Asia to be burned. Not good. Since the mid-19th Century, the human race has been combusting every kind of fuel to run factories and energize society, leading to overproduction of greenhouse gases. Recent droughts, flooding, extreme temperatures and crop failures may be linked, at least in part, to combustion.

The atmosphere no longer maintains the perfect balance that ensured conditions friendly to plant and animal life. Sulfites from coal-fired industrial plants acidify fresh and salt waters to a point where oysters find it difficult to make shells. Extended periods of triple-digit temperatures render certain parts of the country uninhabitable for all but the hardy.

The resultant heat parches forests and grasslands, setting them up for abnormal wildfires that pump still more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, further strengthening the greenhouse effect. And so it goes in an accelerating cycle.

What I see when a coal train passes is more combustion and more pollution. Not home-grown pollution but home-grown coal aiding and abetting Chinese polluters. Not our problem? Not if they could keep their pollution at home.

Given prevailing air currents, Chinese air pollution affects my breathing as surely as Fukushima’s tsunami debris decorates Washington’s beaches. Check satellite photos to see the tan plume of Chinese industrial murk flowing eastward to envelop much of America. Label it, Made in China.

Control of the situation is being debated on both sides of the Pacific. To their credit, China is aggressively expanding wind and solar resources and is ahead of us on both of those fronts. With Chinese cities choking on smog, the People’s Republic has instituted emission standards for coal that may or may not be enforced. Just as they may or may not be enforced here in the U.S.A.

Before condemning China for messing up the atmosphere, we should remember that we out-sourced smokestack industries to them. It sounds a little false that while we enjoy the output of Chinese factories, we condemn the pollution they cause. And it figures that with over four times the U.S. population, China’s growing capacity for polluting will grow.

The air we’re breathing was Chinese air a few days ago and there’s nothing we can do about that. The next time you dust window sills, consider that fully 10 percent of the dust originated in China. Likewise, air breathed by Europeans first swept American industries and exhausts. Given that what goes around comes around, individuals, corporations and governments should begin behaving like responsible sharers of the environment.

Oregon’s Mount Bachelor is home to an atmospheric research station that analyzes the quality of incoming Asian air. Measurements show elevated levels of toxic mercury and sulfates that acidify fresh and salt waters, all of it the result of combustion. There have to be better ways to power civilization.

Comments may be addressed to robertgraef@comcast.net.


We encourage an open exchange of ideas on this story's topic, but we ask you to follow our guidelines for respecting community standards. Personal attacks, inappropriate language, and off-topic comments may be removed, and comment privileges revoked, per our Terms of Use. Please see our FAQ if you have questions or concerns about using Facebook to comment.

Read the Oct 15
Green Edition

Browse the print edition page by page, including stories and ads.

Browse the archives.