Beneath the Surface: Train coal dust and its impact on Lake Windermere

In 2009, a BNSF Rail representative testified that over a 400-mile journey, approximately 645 pounds of coal dust per car are lost.

Like in many other B.C. towns, Invermere has a Canada Pacific Rail (CPR) line running through it. CPR is not required to disclose the cargo they are transporting to the public (only to the municipalities), but as can be seen from the open rail cars, coal is commonly shipped through our town. The fact that the cars are open to the air begs the question of how much coal dust might be blowing out of the cars, and into the air and water. The train runs right along the shore of Lake Windermere, so anything that blows out of the cars could get into the whole lake. This article explores what we know and what we don’t know about the impacts of coal dust on lake ecosystems.

Coal dust has been shown to negatively affect aquatic ecosystems in some instances. Most of the documented impacts have been physical effects. These include the actual particles in the water, which cloud the water and reduce the amount of light that can reach the bottom. This can diminish the ability of plants to photosynthesize, producing less oxygen for the fish and other organisms. Coal dust in aquatic environments has also been shown to smother, abrade and clog breathing and feeding organs in fish (Ahrens and Morrisey, 2005).

Data has been available about these impacts for a long time.  As early as the 1930s, a study was released that linked fish mortality in freshwater streams to irritation caused by coal dust (Pautzke, 1938). A 1979 study reported that the spawning success of fathead minnows was reduced from 90 per cent to 36 per cent because of PAH (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon) contamination from coal (United States Environmental Protection Agency, 1979).

It is important to note that the negative water quality impacts of coal are only present when it is taken out of the ground. The Navajo have traditionally believed that coal is the liver of the earth, a belief that is actually backed up by science. When left in the ground, coal acts as a filter. As water percolates through it, coal seams trap heavy metals and toxins, and actually improve water quality. However, it is when the coal is mined, shipped, and burned that these metals and toxins are allowed to escape into the environment. In the mining process, the impacts on water quality vary based on method. In the Powder Basin in Montana, for example, strip mining is used, a technique that is so destructive it can alter watersheds. Burning coal produces the most impact worldwide. Aside from liberating potentially toxic heavy metals such as uranium and thorium, the chemical smoke can produce acid rain (“Formation of Acid Rain”, Ha, J.).

The shipping of the coal is a more direct concern for Lake Windermere. Because of the way that trains carry coal, large amounts of coal dust can simply blow out of the cars.

As in Invermere, trains always carry coal in open cars, allowing the potential for dust to escape. In 2009, a BNSF Rail representative testified that over a 400-mile journey, approximately 645 pounds of coal dust per car are lost. With an average of 125 cars in a train, that’s 80,645 pounds of coal dust on one trip — that’s 200 pounds per mile per train.

To reduce the amount of coal dust released into the atmosphere, a spray-on substance called a surfactant is applied to the trains before they leave. BNSF Rail (a company that operates mainly in the U.S. and B.C.) claims that the use of surfactants reduces escaping coal dust by up to 85 per cent.

Assuming that is correct, 15 per cent of 80,645 pounds is still 12,094 pounds of coal that is being released into the environment. And that’s just one train. An average of 20 trains pass through Invermere each day.

Even though studies on this topic began early in the last century, relatively little research has been done on the environmental impacts of coal dust. Accurate information on the regulations around controlling the dust can be difficult to locate. It’s up to us to push for the best possible regulations and research to keep our lake clean and healthy for generations to come.

Ella Swan is the Lake Windermere Ambassadors’ Summer Student. She can be reached by phone at 250-341-6898 or by email at intern@lakeambassadors.ca.

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