Coal Train Derailments Lead to Tragedy

Three different trains filled with coal have derailed this week, causing at least two fatalities and hammering home the message that transporting fossil fuels comes with a cost. It’s been a string of havoc: Monday saw a 31-car pileup outside of Pasco, Wash., on a route that cuts through the pristine Cascade mountain range and near the Columbia River Gorge. Then another 31-car derailment on the 4th of July, this one in the Chicago suburb of Northwood, involved a bridge collapse that killed at least two motorists driving underneath.

Officials initially said no one was injured when the train hauling coal derailed on Union Pacific tracks near Willow Road and Shermer Avenue around 1:45 p.m. Wednesday. But this morning, crews spotted the bumper of a car and dug around it with shovels, officials said. […]

Crews are now working to see if there are more cars buried in the debris, Glenview Fire Chief Wayne Globerger said at press conference this afternoon. It is “definitely possible there’s more cars,” he said. […]

“With 27 rail cars, full of coal, there was no way to get in to discover the car until this morning,” Globerger said. “Keep in mind, we’re talking tons (of debris), here.”

And now today we’ve gotten news of a 43-car accident two hours south of Dallas, in Temple, Texas. According to news reports on the latest crash:

While clouds that looked like smoke could be seen for miles, there was no fire. The cars were carrying coal, and the derailment sent coal dust into the area.

[Department of Public Safety] officials said there were no injuries, no hazardous materials spilled, and no roads are being blocked.

Coal spills out of a derailed train in Mesa, Washington. The crash sent 31 cars off the tracks and kicked off a bad week for the coal and railroad industries. (Photo courtesy of Tony Eveland)
In my post earlier this week about the Mesa spill, I flagged a quote from a railway spokesman, who said that “no environmental threat was reported.” It sounds like Texas state officials are taking the same approach: “no hazardous materials spilled” is a pretty crooked message, requiring us to forget that coal is loaded with toxic substances. Lead, mercury, and selenium (just some of the heavy metals found in coal) aren’t exactly Flintstones vitamins, but I guess Texas has low standards for what makes something “hazardous.”

Not only is the dispersal of coal dust into communities a result of these derailments, coal dust can help cause accidents as well. An LA Times article sums it up:

More train traffic would mean more environmental issues—including coal dust, which can contribute to derailments. “Coal dust poses a serious threat to the stability of the track structure and … to the operational integrity of our lines in the Powder River Basin,” BNSF [a major rail company] says in a statement on its website. After a multiyear investigation, BNSF found that coal dust buildup can prevent water from draining out of the tracks, leading to flooding, warping and sometimes derailment.

And when you think about it, coal may be one of the most hazardous materials on earth. Its climate impacts alone are devastating: it accounted for over a third of US energy-related greenhouse gas emissions last year, contributing to sea level rise, extreme weather events, habitat loss and other crises.

The first two derailed trains were traveling from Wyoming’s Powder River Basin coalfields (I haven’t gotten confirmation about the Texas spill, but it was probably PRB coal as well), the biggest coal source in the US. For those of you who read this blog regularly, you know that the coal industry is pulling out the stops in an effort to dramatically expand exports to Asia, which would mean hundreds of millions of tons of coal shipped from the Powder River Basin, and a concurrent expansion of rail traffic. Needless to say, more coal trains means a higher likelihood of these derailments and spills, and more toxic elements in our communities and wildlife habitat. Imagine if the Chicago bridge collapse had been over the Fox River (a few miles west of the crash site), or if the Washington spill occurred on the tracks next to the Columbia River. Good luck cleaning that up with a bulldozer.

Take ActionHelp us stop Big Coal’s march through crucial ecosystems like the Columbia River and Puget Sound. Speak up now to protect wildlife in the Pacific Northwest!