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Crowdfunding Coal Science

SEATTLE — Crowdfunding campaigns are popular ways to raise money for fledgling businesses and independent projects … but scientific research?

As state and federal agencies begin the environmental review process for the largest coal export terminals on the West Coast, some scientists are turning to the public for help with research of their own.

Dan Jaffe is is one of them. He’s a professor of atmospheric and environmental science at the University of Washington in Bothell. He wants to figure out how much coal dust escapes from trains. Jaffe’s scientific inquiry has brought him to a pedestrian footbridge north of Seattle, where he’s looking down at the train tracks that run along Richmond Beach.

“All trains are going to be emitting diesel particulate,” Jaffe says. “The next question is whether trains carrying coal are going to also be emitting things like coal dust.”

Jaffe and a student sampled the air over these tracks last summer as trains passed by and found an increase in larger particles after coal trains came through.

He says his results are preliminary, but when he went to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Ecology they said they couldn’t pay for his research.

So, he created an online profile with microryza, a crowdfunding website.

“Crowdfunding is an approach where you go to the people, you go to the citizens of the United States and say, ‘hey, we’re not getting enough funding for scientific research in this country but here’s an idea and I think it’s a good and important idea,’” Jaffe said. “You throw it out there and if you can convince other people that it’s important idea then they will fund it.”

Dan Jaffe
Monitor measures air pollution from passing trains. Photo by Katie Campbell

Within days Jaffe had met and surpassed his target. He raised $20,000 to pay for a monitoring station to be put up along these tracks. It will gather real-time data and video so he can study the emissions of specific types of trains and try to get an answer to the coal-dust question. He plans to share all the data with the public for independent analysis.

And Jaffe’s not alone in turning to the public for help. Another group is hoping to raise enough money to assess the potential health impacts of coal exports across the Northwest. The coalition includes a group of health providers in the Bellingham area, called the Whatcom Docs. It’s being headed up by Melissa Ahern, a professor with Washington State University’s College of Pharmacy.

The group raised $9,000 in the first 48 hours of its public campaign to raise $50,000 online. It and hopes to have the report done in time to be worked into the official environmental review of the proposed terminal near Bellingham.

That $50,000 goal is meant to close the gap between the $250,000 already raised from local governments and a large trust and the $300,000 overall cost of the health impact assessment.

King County and the City of Seattle have contributed $25,000 dollars each. Multnomah County in Oregon has also contributed. The Pew Charitable Trusts and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation could be among the most generous financial backers of the study; the group behind the health impact assessment have been invited to apply for grant funding, which could provide as much as $150,000.

The report will look at train noise, coal dust, air pollution, rail safety, cancer rates in rail communities and other potential issues. Dr. Frank James is a family physician in Bellingham and one of the organizers of the project.

“This is going to be done by independent health professionals that do this stuff for a living,” James says.

But backers of coal exports in the Northwest have expressed skepticism about whether these studies can be trusted to reach unbiased conclusions about the health or environmental impacts.

Lauri Hennessy is a spokeswoman for the Alliance For Northwest Jobs And Exports. She says the environmental review should not look at any potential impacts outside of the area immediately surrounding the terminals themselves. She cautions that the crowdfunded research could cross the line into advocacy.

“What I think we all need to watch for is research that is done to meet a certain end result and that’s what we don’t want to have happen,” Hennessy says. “We feel at this point all these other studies are getting ahead of the study we are waiting for.”

The UW’s Jaffe says he doesn’t do advocacy research and when he takes on the question of coal dust, he’ll conduct that study just as he would any other area of scientific exploration.

“I have no interest in skewing the data to come to a predetermined conclusion because you know, reputation in science is a lot like virginity. You can only lose it once,” Jaffe says.

He is the author of dozens of published scientific articles and has served on review panels for the National Academy of Sciences.

The governmental agencies overseeing the Gateway Pacific Terminal near Bellingham are expected to release a preliminary report this summer. The report will define the scope what they’ll be looking at in the official review, which will be conducted over the next several years.

Correction: May 23, 2013. An earlier version of this story contained errors. It misstated the role the group, Whatcom Docs, is playing in seeking a health impact assessment. It is one of several groups pushing for the study. The earlier version of the story contained inaccurate information about grant funding for that study. The Pew Charitable Trusts is partnering with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and it has not yet awarded the grant being sought for the health impact assessment. The earlier version of the story misidentified the kind of medicine practiced by Dr. Frank James. He is a family physician.

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