Rail hobbyist, Jeff Van Leuvan is on the pedestrian bridge at Kansas City’s Union Station watching the trains.
“This is a Union Pacific train. It is a coal train and it is probably going toward the St. Louis area,” he comments as another train passes by. Van Leuvan says you can watch up to 120 freight trains pass by this bridge daily.
As Kansas City celebrates Union Station’s 100 years, it’s clear our region’s dependence on rail continues. Trains crisscross the metro area 24 hours a day. Nearly all of that traffic is freight – and most of the freight tonnage is coal. Despite the high volume of coal trains passing through residential areas, little is known about the environmental and health impacts of coal dust coming off open top rail cars.
When rail hobbyist Jeff Van Leuvan started watching trains at Union Station in the 1950s, most of the trains were passenger trains. That’s all changed.
“Number one you have coal that comes from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and then goes to various power plants throughout the Midwest,” he says.
“Intermodal is containers of all types of items that usually come from overseas after they’re unloaded from containers ships on the west coast. And then the other trains, the mixed freights, they might be a box car full of lumber, or a grain car full of soy beans or corn, or whatever, tank cars with chemicals,” explains Van Leuvan.
Kansas City is still a rail hub, first and foremost, because of its central location, says Chris Gutierrez, president of Kansas City SmartPort, a regional economic development group focused on freight based economic development.
“We’re right in the middle of both the east coast and west coast railroads. Plus Kansas City built the first rail bridge over the Missouri river, that really lead to Kansas City, Missouri, being built as a hub,” says Gutierrez. “We are the largest rail center in the country by tonnage, second largest rail center by the number rail cars that come in and out of this market,” he adds.
Ensuring the safe transport of oil and gas by train is getting a lot of attention lately, but there can also be serious environmental and health concerns when it comes to coal transport. And on rail lines, coal is the big mover. Statistics from the Association of American Rail show that almost half of the tonnage on U.S. rail lines and about 80 percent of the tonnage that terminates in Missouri is coal.
Dr. Jennifer Lowry, medical director of the Center for Environmental Health at Kansas City’s Children’s Mercy Hospital, is concerned about the impacts of coal dust from trains in Kansas City, especially on the respiratory health of lower income Hispanics and African-Americans. These communities often live near train lines because the housing there is more affordable.
KCUR showed Lowry a Coal Train Pollution Study from the Australian city of Newcastle that links coal dust pollution with health impacts. Like Kansas City, dozens of coal trains pass through Newcastle’s residential areas each day. The researchers said their findings suggest that residents living within a quarter-of-a-mile of coal trains experience dust pollution at harmful levels that can cause asthma and even premature death.
“Just looking at the graph here it’s very obvious that the levels of particulate matter increase significantly as the trains are going by,” says Lowry. “So it doesn’t take much to make the leap that if the particulate matter in the air is that high then obviously people are going to be breathing it in."
In Parkville, a suburb of Kansas City on the Missouri river, the coal trains cross the main street and continue alongside a recreational area. Trains like this are often on their way to power stations, some close by, including one of the most powerful in the Midwest: the 1500 megawatt capacity Iatan 1 and 2 complex owned by Kansas City Power & Light Company (KCP&L). Each day this complex can consume about 12,000 tons of coal, or a complete coal train of 115 cars.
Greg Muleski, an environmental engineering consultant and dust expert has studied how coal dust comes off passing coal trains for many years.
“It’s primarily wind erosion, and that’s driven by large particles,” he says. “The term is saltation, literally hopping along the surface, and what happens is the coal trains are 110 cars along, so the particles from the first car hop down all the way through.".
According to the train companies, the coal on board is the responsibility of the shipper, a power company like KCP&L, that owns the coal and owns or leases the train cars. In an email response, KCP&L said by shipping their coal in a shape that reduces dust and applying chemical treatments, known as topping agents, they have lowered coal dust by at least 85 percent. Muleski says that percentage is probably right but only if the surface of the coal remains intact.
“If the load shifts in the car, whatever they’ve sprayed the whole erosion down, that crust could be broken,” he says.
Muleski says from existing U.S. studies it’s very difficult to know how much coal dust really blows off coal trains and what, if any impact, coal dust could be having on human health.
However, small steps are being taken that could see a focus on coal dust in Kansas City. The Kansas Department of Health and the Environment is looking into how areas of the city near train lines could be included in the EPA’s Village Green Air Monitoring Project, a pilot program that monitors air pollution levels.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the likely destination of a coal train passing through Parkville.