For some Queen Anne and Magnolia residents, living along the rail line means making dust, diesel exhaust, noise and a bit of shakiness part of your daily life. Some of that unpleasantness can be attributed to the three coal trains, each about 120 cars long, that run through Seattle daily.
In a few years, there could be nine additional coal trains, 150 cars long (or 1.5 miles), roaring through the city every day — if the coal industry has its way.
SSA Marine and Peabody Energy, the largest coal company in the world, has plans to transport to the Asian market up to 48 million tons of coal per year. The coal would travel on rail from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming through Seattle up to Cherry Point, near Bellingham.
On July 24, about 30 local leaders, activists and neighborhood residents gathered at the Queen Anne Community Center to take part in the “Coal Hard Truth,” a forum discussing the potential impacts of an expanding coal industry in the Northwest. State Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles (D) and Pete Mills, a representative for Congressman Jim McDermott (D), were also in attendance.
McDermott recently introduced legislation that would put a federal “tax on coal at the source of extraction so that coal companies pay their fair share,” Mills said. “We shouldn’t be saddled with the after-effects.”
The tax, estimated to bring in $117 billion over the next decade, will go into a trust fund that states could use for infrastructure improvements and to address health and environmental impacts.
Speakers at the forum discussed how growing coal exports threaten the quality of life in Seattle and pose a danger to public health, safety and the environment.
“The idea that coal can be done cleanly is a falsehood,” said Robin Everett of Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign.
Diesel exhaust from trains have been linked to asthma, cardiopulmonary disease and increased incidences of cancer, Everett said. Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) railroad studies estimate that up to 500 pounds of coal can be lost in the form of dust from each rail car en route, leading to a wide range of other health risks, such as mercury exposure and increased rates of asthma.
“The real future for this state and our country is in renewable energy and clean-tech,” Everett said.
According to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, coal is inherently higher-polluting and more carbon-intensive than other energy alternatives, accounting for roughly 20 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.
On July 3, in the Eastern Washington town of Mesa, a train derailed, spilling 31 cars full of coal. While there were no injuries or damage to buildings, the frequency of train derailments should raise concern, Everett said. There were two more coal train derailments in Texas and Chicago that same week.
According to the Federal Railroad Administration, there were almost 1,500 train derailments in 2011. Coal trains account for about half of all train traffic in the United States.
Everett attributed the derailments to coal dust, which can disrupt rail lines. The heavy car-loads also cause strain to infrastructure, she said.
The long, slow coal trains also block traffic — and emergency access routes — for up to four minutes when travelling at 50 mph.
Chris Bass, a business partnership manager for Climate Solutions, said a nursing home in Edmonds is already having problems with emergency vehicles arriving on time.
Bass also pointed to the potential impact the coal trains would have on seasonal cruise traffic -- particularly tourists arriving in Belltown. “We’re talking about passengers getting off a boat, then waiting for a train,” Bass said.
Jesse Maldonado, a nine-year lower Queen Anne resident and intern at the Washington Environmental Council, says freight traffic is already destroying recent efforts to make the neighborhood a more livable community with alternative transportation.
“I live right on 5th Avenue W and Mercer, which is relatively close to a lot of parks and residential areas that are being developed,” Maldonado said. “I’m really worried about how these coal trains will come through Lower Queen Anne. It’s right next to Centennial Park, right next to the waterfront.”
SSA Marine and Peabody Energy’s coal plans are currently under environmental review.
For information on how to participate in the environmental review process, visit www.powerpastcoal.org.