Increased Coal Train Traffic Could Mean Bad News For Public Health

March 27, 2012 | KUOW
Courtney Flatt,
Ashley Ahearn


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  • Robbie Robinson has lived in her house for 12 years, about a block from the BNSF rail yard in Spokane. She developed asthma 20 years ago, but she says the condition has worsened from weather and dust kicked up by trains and winds. credit: Courtney Flatt
  • Larry Liljestrand lives a little more than a block away from Spokane's BNSF rail yard. He says he notices his allergies worsen when he comes home from work. Doctors say diesel pollution from trains can worsen respiratory illness. credit: Courtney Flatt
  • If new export terminals are permitted in the Northwest that could mean more coal train traffic. Public health experts are concerned about the human health impacts from diesel air pollution, noise, coal dust and rail safety. credit: Ashley Ahearn
  • At the Controlled Exposure Lab at the University of Washington study participants are exposed to air polluted with diesel particles then their blood pressure and heart rates are monitored. credit: Ashley Ahearn
  • Dr. Joel Kaufman of the University of Washington is an expert on the human health impacts of exposure to air pollution.
  • The view from the BNSF rail yard in Spokane. Proposed coal traffic increases could mean 100 million more tons of coal traveling through the area. credit: Courtney Flatt
  • Many low-income residents live near rail yards. In a recent health inequities report, the Spokane Regional Health District found that people with lower incomes tend to suffer from more chronic illnesses, like asthma. credit: Courtney Flatt
Robbie Robinson has lived in her house for 12 years, about a block from the BNSF rail yard in Spokane. She developed asthma 20 years ago, but she says the condition has worsened from weather and dust kicked up by trains and winds. | credit: Courtney Flatt | rollover image for more
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BELLINGHAM, Wash. - Box car after box car full of black rock, settled into the shape of bread loaves in uncovered 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 export 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,” James recalls. “So I think people understand that this is a threat, first to their patients, but secondly to them and their families.”

James says 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,” James says.

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 so are their exposures, so it’s difficult to directly compare miners to people living near train tracks.

Right now, there’s more scientific 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. Out behind the building he points up at a large metal box.

“Our diesel engine lives out here in back and it’s running on diesel fuel from the tank over here,” he says.

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. And the differences, Kaufman says, are significant.

“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,” he says.

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,” Kaufman says.

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

View Living Near the Rail Yard in a larger map

Take Spokane, Wash., for example. Spokane is a rail hub for the Pacific Northwest. All trains funnel through town, whether they’ll wind up at proposed new coal terminals in Bellingham, Wash., or Coos Bay, Oregon.

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

Larry Liljestrand

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.

Larry’s son, Brian, was diagnosed with asthma growing up. But Liljestrand says Brian’s breathing improved after he moved to Oregon.

Liljestrand says people in the neighborhood also complain about dust kicked up by high winds.

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

Robinson 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 believes the dust is partially to blame.

But coal dust isn’t the only concern for people living near rail yards. Diesel pollution from idling train engines is another very real concern for residents of this neighborhood in Spokane.

Dr. Joel McCullough, a physician with the Spokane Regional Health District, 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,” McCullough says.

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. That’s half the median income of wealthier neighborhoods in Spokane; ones that are 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,” he says

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

That has Liljestrand concerned that more dust may be coming his way soon.

© 2012 KUOW
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