Coal Trains in Southeast Neighborhoods Part 2: What local experts think

Note: In Part 1 last month, neighbors of SE Portland’s railroad tracks expressed their opinions regarding the coal transport proposal. In Part 2, here, local experts have their say. Part 3, with voices of experts beyond Southeast Portland, will be presented next month.


Inner southeast Portland is defined by train tracks. The rails enter under the Burnside Bridge, run close to the Willamette River through the Central Eastside Industrial District, and leave The Southeast Examiner distribution area at SE 17th Ave. and Powell Blvd.

Sixteen intersections of SE Portland streets and railroad tracks stop cars, cyclists, and pedestrians when trains are passing.

A controversial proposal to transport coal to Asia from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana would bring trains loaded with coal through SE Portland on their way to Coos Bay. Supporters of the project believe that coal would create jobs, while those in opposition raise concerns about air pollution and health risks, climate change, social justice, rail capacity, economic problems, safety and quality of life.

“As an M.D., a scientist, and above all a mother of four young children,” Adriana Voss-Andreae, resident of Hosford-Abernethy neighborhood and long-time public health advocate said, “I am deeply concerned about the global, regional and local impacts that coal trains and coal plant emissions could have.

“As a parent, I am particularly concerned about the direct health impacts it could have on our neighborhood’s children: especially from the coal dust and diesel which contains hazardous particulate matter and volatile and toxic organic compounds.”

In Voss-Andreae’s neighborhood, where there are plans to “regularly route mile-and-a-half-long uncovered coal trains,” tracks are within 600 feet of her two-year-old’s preschool, and within 400 feet of the public elementary school.

“We’re all affected, but the closer you are the more affected you are,” she said. “Our entire community, but in particular our children and other vulnerable populations, will be impacted by coal trains running through our neighborhoods. We should all have the right to breathe air that is not harmful to us.”

Voss-Andreae is thankful that increasing numbers of elected officials have started to speak out about their concerns regarding the transport of coal, but sees this as only the beginning.

“We need a highly vocal public to convince our governor and state and federal agencies to carry out comprehensive and careful studies on the broad environmental and health impacts coal transport could have on our region and communities.”

Fifth-generation Oregonian Bethany Cotton lives in the Richmond neighborhood and works for Greenpeace, says that the proposed coal transport project has “larger potential environmental impact than the Keystone Pipeline. The impact on climate is potentially catastrophic.”

This is not only an environmental problem, she added, “It’s a social justice issue. Communities most impacted are often low-income and communities of color.”

The rail lines themselves have a finite capacity. “If trains are used for transporting a toxic, dangerous commodity, we don’t have them for local products or high-speed passenger rail. Coal is unacceptable for SE neighborhoods, Portland, the Pacific Northwest, or Asian communities,” she summarized. “Coal needs to stay in the ground.”

When asked for a response to proposed coal trains through SE Portland and for information about the science of coal, The Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) had no comment.

Laura Stevens, a Sunnyside neighborhood resident, works for the Oregon Sierra Club, with offices in the Buckman neighborhood. “There would be four coal trains, two empty and two full, a mile and a half long each, carrying between six and ten million tons of coal every year,” she explained.

“Neighborhoods along the tracks, businesses, and commuters would be impacted.”

In what ways?

Air pollution: “Coal dust contains mercury, arsenic, and lead. It has been linked to lung cancer, asthma, and heart disease. This coal is going to Asia to be burned in power plants, and the pollution from the power plants comes back to us, because that’s the way the wind blows. In addition, diesel pollution from trains and exhaust from cars waiting for trains would add to the air pollution.”

Climate change: “So many local people pay attention to their carbon footprint, drying their clothes on the line instead of in the dryer, bicycling instead of driving. Imagine having coal trains running right through our backyards. Then think of our neighbors across the ocean, locked into a dirty, coal-burning future.”

Economic problems: “Studies have shown that an increase in freight traffic can decrease property values and discourage development. An interesting study out of Bellingham suggests that jobs would be lost in restaurants and tourism.”

Safety concerns: “There were seven coal train derailments over the summer across the country. It seems that because they are heavy and long, coal trains are more likely to derail. One thing that’s for sure is that when they do derail, it’s a bigger mess.

“Another concern is access for emergency responders. If ambulances and fire engines have to wait for trains, it could take from six to fifteen extra minutes to get to someone having a heart attack or to a house burning down.”

Quality of life: “Portland is known as a sustainable city with clean air and healthy communities. Transport of coal through Portland would destroy our identity.”

Stevens also noted that SE residents don’t spend all their time in their neighborhoods. We have friends in Vancouver and North Portland, where the rails are already pushed to capacity, and “either the trains slow down or the rails get upgraded, which taxpayers usually pay for.”

We take recreation in the Gorge, which would suffer under 25 coal trains and four coal barges a day if the five coal transport projects, of which SE Portland’s is only one, is approved.

“Get involved in the campaign against coal,” Stevens urged. “Write to your governor and your senators and representatives. They know that the more the public knows about how dirty and destructive these projects are, the more we’ll fight them.”

Coal Trains in Southeast Neighborhoods Part 2: What local experts think

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