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By Helen Silvis of The Skanner News
Published: 12 March 2013

Children playing outside their homes in the New Columbia development in North Portland are within 500 meters of the railroad tracks
PHOTOS: Helen Silvis

Opponents of plans to export coal to Asia through Portland and the Northwest held a rally on the steps of the Oregon Legislature in Salem, at 11:30 a.m. Wednesday, March 13.

"It's very important to go," says Bonnie Meltzer, who lives in North Portland and opposes the plans. "It's easier to stop the coal trains before they are here than after.  Just showing up tells our officials that we care about this. It's hard to do. Salem's an hour away. But if we don't show up the politicians will just shrug and do whatever they want to do."

Plans were announced last summer to export coal through Oregon from the 400-mile wide Powder Mountain basin in Montana and Wyoming. Between 16-19 trains a day would travel along the south side of the Columbia River, carrying 125,000 tons of coal. 

Doctors Warn of Health Risks
Health officials are concerned that emissions from the extra diesel as well as from coal dust, could have negative impacts on the health of 82,000 people who live within 500 meters of the tracks. They're also concerned about the harmful impact of noise and potential delays to emergency responders.

From Troutdale to St. Johns the trains would run by at least a dozen parks, a golf course, and an assisted living facilty, as well as hundreds of homes and dozens of apartment complexes.  

Click on any photo to see all the pics of neighborhoods on rail tracks on Flickr

At least nine schools in Multnomah County are on the railroad route: Roosevelt High, Rosa Parks Elementary, George Middle, Woodlawn Elementary, Faubion,  Helensview High, Parkrose High, Shaver Elementary and Troutdale Elementary.  

Meltzer says three schools in Scapoose, close to a projected export terminal also are very close to the tracks.  

Multnomah County Health Department issued a report on the proposal last week, calling for a regional impact study before any decision is made. That's supported by Whatcom County Docs, a group of around 200 doctors in Washington state, who have reviewed current scientific findings on coal transportation and pollution.

"The effects of air pollution are not hypothetical, but real and measurable," the doctors say in a report.  "Many of the reviewed studies, some of which were conducted in the Seattle area, show significant health effects of exposure to everyday airborne pollutant levels that are below national U.S. Environment Protection Agency guidelines.

"As physicians, we feel the risks to human health from massive coal shipments across our state and through our communities are significant, and we call for a comprehensive Health Impact Assessment, in addition to an Environmental Impact Statement, addressing these issues along the entire rail corridor."

Increased noise levels from trains are also a health risk, the doctors note.  Noise has been linked to heart disease, stroke, sleep disorders, mental illness, and damage to children's brain development. Another potential harmful impact would be delays to emergency traffic such as ambulances.

Scappoose Middle School is one of three schools in the town situated on the railroad tracks. At least nine schools from St. Johns to Troutdale are also very close to the tracks PHOTO: Bonnie Meltzer

How Much Coal Dust? We Don't Know.
The 19-20 percent increase in train traffic would increase diesel emissions from the trains, as well as send an undetermined amount of coal dust into the air. How much?  Nobody knows.

"I don't think there are any reliable estimates right now that the public can review," says Eric de Place, policy director at the Sightline Institute, an environmental nonprofit.  Railroad companies have offered some numbers but their estimates vary widely vary widely, de Place says.

"We have a mountain of research that shows coal dust is extremely hazardous in an enclosed environment in an occupational setting. But the public has not seen research on incidental exposure to coal dust, and there are really good reasons to be concerned."

 Besides the coal trains traveling on the south side of the Columbia, other plans would bring coal through Portland on barges traveling down the Columbia, and the proposals also call for additional trains to travel through Washington state on the north side of the Columbia River.  

Race, Poverty and Pollution
People of color, poor people and the elderly are disproportionately represented among those likely to be most affected. That's a concern, because those groups already suffer from higher rates of heart disease; asthma and other lung diseases; cancer; and other problems, which can be worsened by air pollution and the stress of train traffic.

Children too are at higher risk because coal dust, diesel particulates and noise have been shown to hurt their development. A child whose lungs are damaged, for example, may suffer from decreased lung function for their whole lives.

Studies have shown that miners and people living close to coal mining suffer from ailments connected to the dust. But far less is known about the impact of coal from trains. Weather conditions, track conditions, the type of coal and how it is loaded all may play a part.

One study by Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad Co. found that spraying a chemical on the coal cut 85 percent of the coal dust. But other railroad companies called that study "junk science" in an Oct. 1 filing to the Surface Transportation Board

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