What’s In The Water Under The Ballard Rail Bridge?

March 28, 2013 | KUOW
Katie Campbell,
Ashley Ahearn


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  • Laura James pulls a piece of black porous rock from the water beneath the railroad bridge in Ballard. credit: Lamont Granquist
  • Ron Eng is a geologist at the Burke Museum. He took a look at samples collected by a diver in the water near Seattle's Ballard Locks. He thinks it could be coal. credit: Ashley Ahearn
Laura James pulls a piece of black porous rock from the water beneath the railroad bridge in Ballard. | credit: Lamont Granquist | rollover image for more

The debate over exporting Wyoming and Montana coal through terminals on the Northwest coast has been heating up in recent months. Those who support exporting coal say the terminals will create thousands of jobs and tax revenue for the state. Opponents have raised concerns about the potential environmental and health impacts of coal. Some of them are taking matters into their own hands.

Puget Sound diver Laura James took her video camera to the rail bridge near the Ballard Locks in Seattle to see what falling into the water from passing trains.

Watch the video report:

After a 20-minute dive, James pops up with handfuls of small black rocks that she believes could be coal.

“We actually started finding this stuff, this black rock-like substance and it was pretty much everywhere,” James said. “When you know what to look for it’s there and when it breaks apart it leaves this sand, this black sandy stuff.”

The rocks Laura James was pulling out of the water have not been scientifically confirmed to be coal. Puget Soundkeeper is having the black porous rock tested in a lab to see if it’s coal.

20130328_AA_Ron Eng Burke Museum

But in the meantime Ron Eng, who manages the geology collection at the Burke Museum at the University of Washington, offered to take a look. After looking carefully at the pieces of black rock through a magnifying glass, he said he thinks it could be coal.

About three coal trains per day travel through Seattle from the Powder River Basin to be exported through Canada. BNSF Railway operates the trains that currently deliver several million tons of coal to export terminals in Canada.

BNSF spokewoman Courtney Wallace said, “What was found, we don’t know what it is and coal has been shipped through Washington state by a variety of different methods for more than a century and so there’s no telling how long it’s been there or how it came to be.”

Coal companies are now required to apply what’s called surfactant to control the coal coming off of trains. BNSF-funded studies show the surfactant reduces coal dust by 85 percent.

“We don’t believe any commodity including coal should be allowed to escape from our shipping containers,” Wallace said. “Proactive measures are taken to assure the safety of all commodities that we transport.”

However, BNSF Railway has publicly stated that 645 pounds of coal dust can escape from each coal train car.

Coal contains heavy metals and other compounds that have been shown to be harmful to fish.

© 2013 KUOW
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