“Coal dust contains toxic metals like mercury and lead and arsenic,” said Dr. Andy Harris on May 7 in Portland. “Other than nuclear energy, coal is the dirtiest, most toxic fuel on the planet.”

Dr. Harris is a member of Physicians for Social Responsibility, an affiliate of an international group that won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985. He’s part of a movement fighting plans being explored by international coal companies to ship coal in open trains from Wyoming through the Columbia Gorge and on to several Pacific Northwest ports by train.

The plans involve six port terminals in Oregon and Washington shipping 146 million tons of coal a day to Asia. The United States has the largest known coal reserves in the world, and currently exports approximately 80-100 million tons of coal each year. Because of emissions restrictions in the US, the lower price of natural gas here and the burgeoning demand in China and India, energy companies see Asia as a prime market; the demand is higher there and pollution regulations weaker.

One of the three port locations considered in Oregon is Coos Bay and for the coal to reach the there, trains passing through Salem would ship it south daily.

“The goal would be 8-10 trains a week with a maximum average of two a day, each about 1½ miles long, being 120-135 cars in length,” says Elise Hamner of the Port of Coos Bay.

83 Pacific Northwest organizations have joined forces to resist this proposal for environmental reasons, including the toxins coal cars release into air and water, the harm of coal burning on other countries as well as their toxic fumes returning here, and the impact on overall climate change.

Power Past Coal cites Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad studies that estimate “up to 500 pounds of coal can be lost in the form of dust from each rail car en route.”  They say shipping tons of coal a year through communities like Salem would “release toxic coal dust and diesel exhaust along the rail lines, clog our railroads, ports, and highways, risk our families’ health, pollute our air and water, and stoke the climate crisis.”

“There’s so much published research on the serious health effects of coal dust,” Linda Arkin of Eugene’s Beyond Toxics. “Shorter life, COPD, stroke, heart attack. And the proposal would result in this dust flying out into the Willamette Valley, the richest agricultural area in the world. Once you get coal dust on a strawberry or a blueberry – you can’t wash it off.”

But the Port of Coos Bay says that central to their “due diligence” is researching dust emissions to find the safest solution available. Risks will be investigated and addressed before the project goes forward. Brian Gard of Ambre Energy, a company hoping to ship coal from the Port of Morrow, speaks similarly, saying this company “has worked hard to meet the high environmental standards of Oregon. The political sensitivity to environmental issues is much higher [here] than other states.” Both Ambre and Coos Bay say public health is a high concern, and their attention to them will mean substantial benefits for the communities they work with.

“Economically there’s a huge payoff for the people of Oregon,” says Hamner. The Port of Coos Bay and the energy company it is working with a plan to make a 160 million investment in bringing the railroad between Eugene and Coos Bay to standard, and $200 – $250 million to bring the Port itself to standard. Hamner points out that these are projects that would employ hundreds of people in an area where 75% of schoolchildren are so disadvantaged they qualify for free school lunches.

“It’s hard to say no to those kinds of jobs for folks who need work,” she says.

Arkin disagrees. “I can’t see that a small number of jobs can ever justify the environmental devastation caused by mining, transporting, exporting and burning dirty fuel.” She refers to the impact of airborne mercury that will return to Oregon after combustion of coal in Asia.

On April 24, Governor Kitzhaber said he had “grave concerns” about shipping coal through Oregon. He asked the Bureau of Land Management and the Army Corps of Engineers for an extensive review, because “Most of the as-yet-unexamined environmental, health, community, economic impacts associated with this tremendous increase in coal transport to the west coast would be shouldered by Oregon and Washington.”


There has been a coreection made to this story, where we incorrectly stated there would be 8 to 10 train per day. It should read 8 to 10 trains per week. We have updated the text.