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Impacts from Railway Diesel Emissions and Coal Trains Studied

by on March 25, 2014

A University of Washington study has confirmed what many persons living in proximity to rail operations have long suspected – that residents around rail lines face increased exposure to harmful microscopic particles from diesel emissions.

The study also identified further concerns with residential exposure to larger particulate matter as well, which the study noted as having a possible link from coal trains.

As the argument on both sides of the border intensifies over proposals to increase coal exports to Asia by rail to west coast ports, the study, published in this month’s online journal “Atmospheric Pollution Research” provides some of the first measurements of the impact of emissions from coal trains throughout the Pacific Northwest region.

New Study Focuses on Railway Diesel Emissions, Coal Train Air Quality Issues

Dan Jaffe, an atmospheric scientist at the University noted that while air quality data is available in both Washington State and British Columbia, it is not specifically focused on rail lines.

“We wanted to find a real home where people actually live (next to a rail line) to see what were air quality impacts. They were surprisingly significant,” stated Jaffe.

Two locations included in the study examined exposure at a Seattle home, located about 20 metres from a rail line, and a rural location in the Columbia River Gorge area.

During the month in which measurements were taken by the home in Seattle, the study found that the level of tiny particles was more than double than that at coastal areas away from railways. The study further demonstrated that trains produced “substantial quantities of diesel exhaust linked to these particles.”

Not surprisingly, the study found that passing coal trains generated a statistical increase in larger particles in comparison to other types of trains.

Air Quality Concerns Raised as Rail Traffic Increases

The study notes that increases in rail traffic will further increase particulate exposure in the Seattle area, and that some homes may be subjected to a degree of exposure in concentrations that exceed U.S. air quality guidelines.

Results were less conclusive in the Columbia River area; Jaffe acknowledged overall that the one-month time period over which measurements were taken was in itself, a limitation.

Meanwhile, back in Canada, coal exports are slated for significant increases in B.C.’s Lower Mainland. North Vancouver’s Neptune Bulk Terminals has already had a $200 million expansion approved, and a further $15 million proposal to handle coal at Surrey Fraser docks is seeking similar approval.

More Coal Trains, Too Few Answers

Port Metro Vancouver, who has faced considerable public criticism over its handling of health concerns from expanding its capacity to handle coal in the region was sent a copy of the study by Jaffe.

We’ve not yet heard of any response by the Port about the study, and we’re not going to hold our breath waiting, either.

Paula Williams, spokesperson for the Lower Mainland-based group “Communities and Coal” says it’s time for the B.C. government to order a comprehensive study of its own to assess the health impacts of the pending Surrey project.

Says Williams: “As far as I’m concerned, this (study) should be an indication that, ‘OK, hold on, we have a problem here. We need to look at this further.’ What more do they want? This is important.”

Williams appears to be in good company. Fraser Health’s chief medical health officer, Dr. Paul Van Buynder, has also expressed concern about the Surrey coal expansion.

Region’s Chief Medical Health Officer Weighs in on Debate

Buynder has already called for a comprehensive health impact assessment to consider risks from the potential inhalation of coal dust, potential contamination of air and land, including food production impacts and possible shellfish contamination, as well as a review of impacts from excessive noise from railways, and a review of how increased rail traffic could reduce access to emergency care for residents.

Buynder had previously stated last year that, “At this point, I am neither in favour nor opposed to the project. I am simply asking that we put on a health lens and ensure steps are taken to safeguard the people who live along the proposed route and our communities in general.”

A reasonable request from a very respected source; and yet to be fully answered. I’m not sure how industry simply sidesteps the concerns of an entire region’s leading public health official and still thinks it can win over the public at the same time, while seeking approval on an increasingly contentious project.

Coal to Newcastle, No, Make That Neptune

Indeed, in the time following Buynder’s comments, a coal train bound for North Vancouver’s Neptune Terminals derailed just north of Burnaby Lake, spilling metallurgical coal into Silver Creek, prompting concerns for aquatic life there, and raising many more questions about the safety of coal trains.

Diesel Emissions From Railways, Coal Dust from Coal Trains – Too Many Questions

It’s time to address the elephant that’s been lurking in the room all along. What impacts are diesel emissions from railways having on the people breathing the air around it? What’s the impact of rail-transported coal on health and the environment? And how does the mixture of both fine particulate matter from diesel emissions and larger particulate matter from coal dust from trains affect communities overall?

A burning question, to be sure. And one that, the more that public concerns are ignored, the more fuel will be continually added to a fire of controversy that is not going to go away.

  1. Walter Pfefferle permalink

    And you think living next to Hwy 401 or any other major highway with hundreds of thousands cars passing residential homes each month don’t do the same thing. Maybe we should just shut down the railways and forbade the use of automobiles and all go back to growing our own food, living by candlelight and travelling by horse and buggy.

    Take a vote on that, see how that goes.

    Quit living in a bubble and quit smoking what you are growing. 🙂

    • trainjane permalink

      Or maybe we should place limits on the amount of noise that the rail industry subjects communities to, especially at night. It’s about recognizing what is reasonable and acceptable while keeping freight moving.

      Rail’s the one “living in the bubble” as you say, and I’m a non-smoker, of course. Wish the railway could tone that one down as well, it would really help air quality for a lot of folks.

  2. Concerned mom permalink

    I live with a train in my back yard that is about 12 feet away from where my kids play, and the train will sit and idle there for hours and hours and hours a day while running the engines. My kids are being polluted so bad and the noise level is so loud that when the train is there you cant even have a conversation in my yard, you have to go in the house to talk.
    I have tried over and over to ask if the train can idle down the track a little bit where it will not be directly in someones back yard and also if they can shut the engines off instead of leaving them on for hours and hours at a time multiple times a day, the 5response i got back from CP was that they couldnt shut the engines off cause the fridges on the train need the engine to run to stay on and the person driving the train needs the fridge for their lunches, so polluting my kids was less of a concern than to them. they just dont care.
    my son has now heart problems and lots of kids on the street have health problems and CP refuses to move the idleing trains down the track a little bit so they dont directly pollute us.
    does anyone know of someone who could help me with this issue?

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