CENTRALIA, Wash. — Proposals to make the Northwest a major coal exporting region have made for a familiar debate over the potential impacts on people and the environment.
Will it help the economy? What will coal dust do to the air we breathe? Will our rivers and marine waters be threatened?
Here’s another question: Will coal trains harm the wetlands of the Pacific Northwest?
So far, wetlands have not been a central part of the public debate over coal exports. But concern over these ecologically sensitive areas are familiar to the federal regulators who will decide whether to permit coal export terminals.
In fact, according to government documents obtained by EarthFix, the Army Corps of Engineers has already studied the issue. And in at least one instance, it’s reached a conclusion:
Coal trains are bad for wetlands.
In 2007, TransAlta Centralia Mining applied for a permit to expand rail capacity to deliver coal from the Powder River Basin straddling Montana and Wyoming to its plant in Centralia, Wash. The company proposed building two 8,500-foot by 40-foot railroad sidings where waiting coal trains could pull over to prevent blocking rail traffic.
The corps acknowledged in permitting documents obtained by EarthFix under the Freedom of Information Act that the project would destroy nearly three acres of wetlands outright and potentially contaminate more wetlands with coal pollution along four miles of a rail line that services the plant. The project was designed with the expectation that coal traffic to the plant would more than double.
The conclusions in these documents have new relevance as the corps begins its environmental review of two large coal export facilities in Washington and a smaller facility on the Oregon side of the Columbia River. Combined, they would haul more than 100 million tons of coal by rail each year from Wyoming and Montana. But the corps has said it will not be considering wetland impacts along rail lines beyond the immediate vicinity of the proposed terminals themselves, a move which contradicts its decision on the TransAlta permit.
(Map created with data from the National Wetland Inventory. Credit: Nick Arnold, Oregon State University College of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Science)
The corps ultimately issued the TransAlta permit with special conditions to mitigate the environmental impacts posed by coal trains and the materials leached and flushed from coal cars - not just at the site of the rail sidings themselves, but for several miles of track beyond.
Here’s what the corps said about coal train pollution in the TransAlta permit:
“The presence of contaminants at high concentration in some coal leachates and the demonstration of biological uptake of coal-derived contaminants in a small number of studies suggest that precipitation could wash potentially toxic amounts of potential chemical contaminants from loaded and unloaded coal cars.”
The list of contaminants includes arsenic, cadmium, mercury, chromium, lead, aluminum, beryllium, copper, iron, nickel, selenium and compounds of sulfur, zinc, polyaromatic hydrocarbons and other organic compounds and acids.
The corps went on to say that there is “little quantitative information” about how much of these chemicals could leach into the surrounding wetlands but called attention to “potentially serious water quality impacts” associated with the dust and coal-tainted waters that could escape from standing rail cars over time.
“These are all pollutants that can change biological activity,” said Tom Hruby, a senior wetland ecologist with the Washington Department of Ecology, when shown the list.
According to data from the National Wetlands Inventory, coal trains will travel through more than 15,000 acres of wetlands within 100 meters of the tracks along the route from the mines in the Powder River Basin to the proposed Northwest terminals.
The coal trains will be traveling at varying speeds and through different types of wetlands along the route. Hruby specified that the coal pollutants could behave differently depending on pH levels, soil composition and hydrology of the wetlands.
(Acres of wetlands within 100 meters of the coal train route from Gillette, WY to Bellingham, WA. Data courtesy of the National Wetlands Inventory)
When the corps allowed TransAlta to expand its rail operations at the Centralia plant the federal regulatory agency required the following “precautionary risk minimization measures” to protect nearby wetlands from coal pollution:
- Create a buffer zone with trees between the rail upgrade and surrounding restored wetlands.
- Redesign a nearby wetland channel to maintain a 220-feet distance from the edge of the proposed rail upgrade project.
- Maintain an 80-foot wide no-mow strip north of the edge of the rail upgrade.
- Create a no-disturbance strip (at least 220 feet wide) between the rail upgrade and a nearby restored wetland area.
The corps’ concerns about coal trains didn’t stop there. In the permit documents the agency acknowledged that the coal trains would have effects well beyond the site of the rail siding construction, potentially affecting “the areas proximate to the rest of the approximately 4-mile railroad spur.”
The review’s consideration of a four-mile stretch of rail line stands in contrast to the corps’ approach to the three current coal-transporting proposals in the Northwest. With these projects, the corps has decided not to consider impacts outside of the “immediate vicinity” of those train-to-vessel coal-transferring facilities.
A chief regulator with the corps acknowledged in an interview that the more far-reaching environmental review for the Centralia project contrasts the more limited look her agency is taking with the export terminals.
“Things do set precedents to a degree,” said Muffy Walker, the chief regulatory officer overseeing the corps environmental review of the coal terminals. “But the program is always evolving and we’re always learning new things.”
Walker went on to say that knowing what she knows today she would not have “done the same things on the TransAlta project as what we did.”
“One of the things I’ve always learned in this job is everything always evolves and any old file project I pick up now I’d go, ‘Why did I do that that way?’” Walker said.