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On January 30, Alpha Natural Resources (ANR) announced outstanding safety performance for 2017, with four affiliate operations in West Virginia honored for safety achievements by the West Virginia...
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Coal Dust Control in the Pacific Northwest

By Dave Gambrel

For several years Wyoming and Montana coal producers have tried to get out in front of what they perceive as the next big market for super-clean Powder River Basin (PRB) coal: China, India and other Pacific Rim countries. Their efforts to build coal terminals in Washington and Oregon have met the largest opposition they have experienced in recent years, largely from out-of-state professional fomenters who have no stated plans to contribute to the economic health of either state.

The Sierra Club recently said on April 2, it "and its partners sent a 60-day notice of intent to sue to Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway (BNSF) and several coal companies for violations of the federal Clean Water Act. The Sierra Club, Puget Soundkeeper, Columbia Riverkeeper, RE Sources for Sustainable Communities and Friends of the Columbia Gorge have found evidence that the companies are responsible for emitting coal into waterways in many locations across Washington." The letter went to BNSF, Arch Coal, Peabody Energy, Cloud Peak Energy, Ambre Energy and others. Presumably, the threat is that if BNSF and coal shippers do not cease and desist within 60 days, they will feel the wrath of clubs, water keepers and the EPA.

According to the Sierra Club, "BNSF is responsible for hauling an average of 480 open-top rail cars carrying coal through Washington daily. In addition to posting a report to its own website, BNSF also testified at hearings before the Surface Transportation Board that each rail car loses an average of 500 lb of coal dust per trip. Current coal trains are composed of approximately 120 rail cars, resulting in an average of 30 tons of coal being lost per train trip. Longer trains are expected in the future should new export terminals be built. By BNSF's own figures, the four daily coal trains traveling through Washington heading to Canada or to the state's last remaining coal plant combine to lose a staggering 120 tons of coal dust per day." There follows another half dozen or so paragraphs of typical anti-coal tirade.

It may surprise BNSF and coal producers to learn that more than 21 million tons per year are moving through Washington state: 480 cars/day x 365 days/yr x 120 tons/car. The state's only coal-fired power plant, Centralia, uses about 2.5 million tons per year. Trains cut across the corner of southeastern Washington to deliver 1.6 million tons to Oregon's Boardman plant. Westshore Terminal recorded record shipments of 8.2 million tons of U.S. coal. The total of 12.3 million tons does not approach 21 million tons. Where did the other 8.7 million tons go? Also, since the daily coal loss of 120 tons (one entire rail car) is rather staggering, one wonders why electric utilities are not demanding huge rebates. It seems Sierra Clubbers used the numbers they got off the STB website and BNSF's own website to write their threat letter, but forgot to check their results for reasonableness.

If the Sierra Club had good evidence would they not flaunt it? Washington coal mines have produced coal since the early 1800s, only shutting down in recent years. More than 140 mine operators produced coal from more than 230 mines. The first coal mine in Washington state was located in Whatcom County (where the Gateway Pacific Terminal would be built), and was named Bellingham coal mine No. 1. Clubbers, we would suggest you don't bother the courts with information you got off websites, and that you don't go into court with a boxful of coal dust as evidence a BNSF coal train "emitted" it onto the tracks beside the Columbia River. Your coal sample could very well have been "emitted" there by a Washington coal company recently or many decades ago. It would be a forensic nightmare to identify its source.

Figure 1: Rail Car Covers Available
Company Location Phone Cover Description
Global One Transport (Coal Cap) Ft. Worth, TX 817-717-1000 Retractable full-length doors
CleaRRails, LLC Denver, CO 303-478-4540 Fully retractable solid cover in tracks
Strategic Rail Systems x Springfield, SD 260-894-4083 Two semi-flexible doors hinged on each side
Structural Composites Ligonier, IN 260-894-4083 Two-door wedge and funnel; one-door wedge and funnel
Ecofab Covers Vancouver, BC 800-222-3130 Semi-rigid arched cover, hinged one side

Controlling Coal Dust
While it may turn out the Sierra Club is making idle threats, it is nevertheless true they can be a formidable and constant pain-in-the-neck to project developers. In the Pacific Northwest the partners in the Gateway Pacific Terminal project are taking them very seriously. The Gateway Pacific website states "Peabody Energy is the first export customer for the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal. Peabody intends to treat all coal that it exports through Cherry Point with sealant, which is consistent with the railroad's requirements. Peabody already has this technology in place, and uses it safely and effectively. The process is simple; each car is loaded using a low-profile shaping technique, and then sprayed with a sealant, a water-based product that has the same key ingredients found in white school glue. The sealant forms a crust over the coal, essentially creating a veneer cover. The practices will create a 'belt and suspenders' approach, to eliminate potential concerns about dust in the state or in Whatcom County from Peabody's coal shipments." The real questions are, "Will coal sealants—surfactants—be enough to satisfy the coal dust fears of ordinary citizens, and will the Sierra Club ever be satisfied?" Rail car covers might be an option.

Rail Car Covers
For several years now, a half dozen companies have worked on different rail car cover designs to prevent coal dust from flying out the tops of rail cars. Figure 1 gives the names and addresses of six of them, as well as a very brief description of their design. A basic coal car cover has to meet several design requirements: (1) It must not slow down the process of loading; (2) It must not twist or turn in the wind, of which there is plenty in Wyoming; (3) It must not freeze up or malfunction whenever there is snow or ice or rain; (4) It must not deform or fly off at maximum train speeds; (5) It must open and close in all kinds of weather without delaying the dumping process; (6) It must provide a safe and secure retrofit to a rail car; and (7) It must not cost so much no one would ever buy it.

Fuel Savings & Coal Dust Control
In 2010, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories, working under DOE funding, published a report titled Fuel Savings & Aerodynamic Drag Reduction from Rail Car Covers. The report concluded the potential for energy savings by reducing the aerodynamic drag of rail cars is significant. The focus was not the efficacy of dust retention by rail car covers, but the potential for fuel savings and the resultant reduction in air pollution. The measurements were made in the NASA-Ames 15- x 15-in. low-speed wind tunnel at a 65 m/s free-stream velocity with and without simulated coal in all cars. The cover designs tested yielded an average drag reduction of 43% relative to empty cars corresponding to an estimated round-trip fuel savings of 9%.

What does it really mean to have covered rail cars? The obvious answer is that dust control would be vastly improved, even over cars sprayed with surfactant. The not-so-obvious answer is a tremendous annual savings in fuel expenses and a parallel reduction in greenhouse gases. The 9% fuel savings could save the two western railroads between $150 million and $300 million annually, depending on fuel costs and numbers of coal trains operating.

While the advantages of covers look good on paper, who will take the first step toward providing fleets of covered rail cars? Coal-burning utilities own a high percentage of the rail cars that serve their power plants, but the rail cars going to the export market will not be owned by utilities. Who would own them, the railroads or the coal producers? Who would spend the money to fit or retrofit existing fleets with covers, or to buy new fleets of covered cars?

Gambrel is a coal transportation consultant and writer. Formerly the director of transportation for Peabody Energy, he was also involved in the development and management of export coal terminals. He may be reached at [email protected]