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Coal Train Traffic Increase Could Be Bad News For Health

Courtney Flatt

There are now six new export terminals proposed to be built along the Northwest coast. The goal? To bring American coal to Asia, via train and ship.

If these terminals are approved that could mean more than 100 million tons of coal traveling by rail across Idaho, Washington and Oregon every year.

The potential for more train traffic has public health experts concerned. 

Car after car full of black rock, settled into the shape of bread loaves in un-covered containers, rumbles along the Bellingham waterfront. This is one of hundreds of communities that have grown up along the railways in the Northwest.

If more coal is exported, that could mean more trains like these coming through towns on their way to the terminals.

And that has some concerned about people’s health.

Dr. Frank James is a physician and researcher at the University of Washington.

He’s also a member of the Whatcom Docs – a large group of doctors in Whatcom County that are calling for an assessment of the human health impacts of increased coal train traffic.

“I’d never seen 160 doctors agree on anything, really honest ever, and 160 people signed up over a matter of a week. So I think people understand that this is a threat, first to their patients, but secondly to them and their families.”

The Whatcom Docs’ biggest concerns are about track safety, noise, diesel pollution and coal dust.

“Coal dust is not really very good for you. There’s arsenic, mercury and lead and a lot of bad things in coal and when that gets into a water supply it’s not a very good thing as well.”

Studies have been done on miners who are directly exposed to coal dust every day. Their risks of getting bronchitis, emphysema and pulmonary fibrosis are higher than the rest of the population.

But their exposures are higher than people who live near train tracks so it’s difficult to directly compare the two groups.

Right now, there’s more evidence for concern about the air pollution that will come from the diesel engines that power the trains.

At his lab in Seattle Dr. Joel Kaufman studies how tiny particles of diesel pollution in the air affect people. He’s a professor of Environmental and Occupational Medicine at the University of Washington.

 “So the exhaust is taken through this piping where it enters into the ventilation system for the exposure room.”

The exhaust from this engine is pumped into a room where participants sit and have their vitals monitored – such as heart rate and blood pressure.

On some days diesel exhaust is piped into the room. On other days, clean air.

“What we’ve observed is that during the days when people come in and get the diesel exhaust we see a higher blood pressure and a constriction of the arteries that we believe is related to the diesel exhaust.”

The exposure rates in Kaufman’s lab are higher than the average exposure for someone who lives by train tracks.

But Kaufman says experimenting in this controlled setting is key to understanding what’s going in communities that may be suffering from lower-level long-term exposures.

“Trying to understand the health effects of diesel exhaust exposure gives us a window into the kind of health effects that could be occurring as a result of this coal transit as well.”

Health effects like asthma and heart disease have been associated with diesel exhaust – especially in communities closest to train tracks and freeways.

Every day, as Larry Liljestrand drives home from work he crosses a bridge over the Burlington Northern Santa Fe rail yard. That’s when he begins wheezing, coughing and sniffling.

“It’s like I have an allergy to something, and it happens right here.”

Spokane is a rail hub for the Pacific Northwest. All trains funnel through town, whether they’ll wind up in Bellingham, Washington, or Coos Bay, Oregon.

Larry Liljestrand’s home is about a block and a half from the rail yard. You can hear the trains as they pull in.

Now, the noise doesn’t bother Liljestrand and his wife so much. They’re more concerned about the air. Liljestrand began noticing his allergies would disappear whenever he left home. And it happened all year long.

Liljestrand’s son, Brian, is one of seven children. He was diagnosed with asthma growing up. But Liljestrand says his son’s breathing improved after he moved to Oregon.

“They told me I had asthma, too, but I don’t know if I believe that. I think it was just allergies.”

People in the neighborhood also complain about dust kicked up by high winds.

“There’s a lot of dust right in this area. A lot of dust, and I do have asthma and allergies. So we mostly keep our windows shut, and I have an air purifier.” says Robbie Robinson.

She sits quietly at her kitchen table as her grandkids nap in the next room. She says she developed asthma 20 years ago, before moving next to the rail yard. But, she says, her condition has worsened in the 12 years she’s lived in this house. Robinson blames the weather, but also the dust.

Besides dust, people living near rail yards breathe in diesel pollution from idling train engines. Not all residents notice breathing difficulties. And Spokane doctors say other factors, like genetics and smoking, can worsen chronic diseases.

Joel McCullough is a doctor with the Spokane Regional Health District. He says diesel pollution can irritate people who are susceptible to respiratory illness.

“Living near a rail yard, you’re exposed to different environmental pollutants. And some pollutants, it’s possible to make asthma worse, mainly by irritating your respiratory track.”

Another problem: many low-income residents live near rail yards. In 2000, the median household income in Larry Liljestrand and Robbie Robinson’s neighborhood was about 24,000 dollars. That’s half the median income of wealthier neighborhoods in Spokane, away from the tracks.

The Spokane Regional Health District just completed a health inequities report. It found that people with lower incomes tend to suffer from more chronic illnesses, like asthma. These findings are consistent with other studies across the country.

Back in Larry Liljestrand’s house, he’s beginning to remodel the downstairs. The home was built in 1946. Liljestrand has already finished the upstairs rooms. During the remodel, he noticed black soot covering everything.

“It has a lot of coal dust and stuff in here, from when the other trains were here, the old steam engines.”

New export terminals could mean more than 100 million tons of coal traveling across Idaho, Washington and Oregon every year.

Liljestrand just hopes more dust isn’t coming his family’s way. 

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