Coal Exports: Are You Safe?

Think you’re safe from the effects of coal exports because you don’t live near a coal mine?

How about railroad tracks? Chances are you either live near railroad tracks or travel next to or across railroad tracks to get from point A to point B in your daily travels.  According to this article from the Monroe Monitor and Valley News in Monroe, WA, there were 18 coal train derailments last year in the United States, with 2 resulting in the deaths of 4 people. A couple was killed when a coal train derailed in a Chicago suburb last July, and in August, 2 college girls were killed when another coal train derailed in Ellicot City, MD.

Neither one of those cities is near a coal mine, yet both dealt with the destruction and sadly, the deaths, caused by these train derailments. And what caused those trains to derail, anyway? Debris on the tracks? Human error? Weather? Another side effect of coal exporting is the hazardous coal dust left behind either when the coal is sitting waiting for shipment or when the coal is actually ON the trains being shipped to the coast for exportation overseas.

Still not convinced? Think about this. In a town the size of Los Angeles or Houston, there might not be too much of an effect on traffic if a 137-car coal train came through town. Those cities are big enough to handle traffic. There are hospitals located all over those cities. But what about a city the size of Billings, Montana? You can see from this blog by our Shepherd University intern Yolandita that there would be a serious impact on the region if the town were to be separated — possibly many times each day — by coal trains of this size. A fire or motor vehicle accident on one side of the tracks, fire trucks, EMS or hospital on the other side of the tracks, and a coal train blocking all of the railroad crossings, literally cutting the town in half, would cause a major delay.  And in emergencies, seconds count.

Living on the coast near a coal-export terminal has its own share of risks.  In addition to the chronic dust problem, severe storms can flood adjacent neighborhoods with toxic runoff.  Check out the blog we posted about the damage done to industrial facilities near Braithwaite, LA by Hurricane Isaac in September. Our new partner in the Gulf Monitoring Consortium, Gulf Restoration Network, took to the air to document similar storm damage and problems at a major coal-export terminal. Here’s aerial survey photography we prepared to support that overflight:

NOAA aerial photography taken September 3, 2012, showing flooded Kinder-Morgan coal export facility and residential neighborhood near Braithwaite, Louisiana in the wake of Hurricane Isaac.

So if you think just because you live hundreds of miles from a coal mine, you won’t ever be affected by coal exportation, think again.

1 reply
  1. Dennis Gann says:

    Thanks John–Here in Alaska PacRim coal just submitted a preliminary facilities permit application for the Chuitna coal strip mine. They will need to build a two mile long trestle into Cook Inlet to reach deep enough water for Cape Class vessels as all the 12 million tons of expected annual exports are destined for Asian coal fired power plants. The new map for the trestle proposal shows how they intend to build it over the top of an existing commercial setnet sight that has fished for wild Alaska salmon for some 100+ years. Can you imagine trying to market wild AK salmon, one of the healthiest protein sources, under a blanket of coal dust. And of course with all the coal going to those Asian coal fired power plants the other wild Alaska fish will see increased levels of mercury from the emissions carried across the ocean on trans oceanic and atmospheric currents–making us all less safe.
    Thanks for your article and keep up the good work.

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