Coal Train Comin’

Rex Weyler

Canada’s dangerous bargain with US lignite, the world’s dirtiest coal:

This summer, Port Metro Vancouver approved a coal export terminal on the Fraser River, despite severe warnings by health officials and ecologists. Over the last decade, Canadian federal conservatives and BC Liberals have gutted the industrial review process, silenced scientists, eroded ecological protections, and attempted to muzzle citizen engagement. This assault on science and common sense has paved the way for BC to serve as the patsy in a massive hydrocarbon export plan for the world’s dirtiest fuels, namely: tar sands bitumen and low-grade, dirty coal.

The plan to export coal from the Fraser River, via a deep sea port on Texada Island, to Asia, involves the world’s dirtiest, high-carbon, low-energy coal deposits, brown lignite from the infamous Powder River basin in Montana, where citizens have organized to oppose the mining that endangers their health and environment.


Montana brown lignite coal mine. Photo by Mitchell Wenkus, Greenpeace

Attempts to ship this coal from US ports have also been met with resistance. In May 2012, the Seattle City Council unanimously rejected Powder River coal export terminals due to ecological impact and public health. The state of Oregon also has denied land permits for an Oregon coal export terminal. At a rally in Portland, Robert Kennedy Jr. from Riverkeepers warned that coal revenues corrupt the public process and “turn government agencies into the sock puppets of the industries they’re supposed to regulate.”

Desperate to export the dirty Montana coal, producers have turned to Canada, where regulations have been gutted. Port Metro’s approval does not even require Fraser Surrey Docks to comply with Metro Vancouver district air-emission standards. Meanwhile, Metro Vancouver has already charged the Fraser River docks with air contamination from existing operations.

The cities of New Westminster, Burnaby and Vancouver have all voiced opposition to the project. Dr. Paul Van Buynder, chief medical health officer for the Fraser Health Authority, said that Port Metro Vancouver concluded there would be no “unacceptable” human health risk, without consulting him or any other Provincial health authorities, the “people who are legislated to be responsible for the health of the Lower Mainland.”

coal train dust, Montana,

Coal trains coat everything in their path with coal dust; residents complain of property devaluation and health impacts. Photo:

Residents along the train line and BC environmental groups have protested the slack and corrupted review process, especially the failure to consider global heating from coal. Kevin Washbrook at Voters Taking Action on Climate Change, warned of massive climate impact. “The port authority,” said Washbrook, “is an unelected, unaccountable body deciding for itself what level of risks are acceptable for our communities.”

On behalf of Washbrook’s group and private citizens, BC’s Ecojustice has filed a lawsuit against Port Metro Vancouver. “Our clients’ case not only alleges bias,” said lawyer Karen Campbell, “it also challenges the Port’s failure to consider the dangerous climate impacts of burning the coal once it reaches Asia.”

Campbell, Washbrook, local citizens, and medical authorities have sound reasons to warn of health and ecological risks from the low-grade Powder River lignite, the world’s carbon-intensive coal.

Coal, known as “King coal” or “black gold” for its historic economic influence, is also known as the “dirtiest fuel,” the most carbon-intensive and toxic hydrocarbon. The industry has promoted “clean coal,” but since they have exhausted Earth’s premium mines, coal actually gets dirtier every year.

Darkness in the lignite era

Coal, like oil, represents the organic remains of ancient photosynthesis. Oil is primarily the residue of marine algae trapped in ocean sediment, whereas coal originated from land plants buried under soil. During photosynthesis, plants reduce atmospheric carbon-dioxide (CO2) to produce glucose, the basis of all complex organic molecules in plants and animals.

In most cases, when organisms die, bacteria oxidize the carbon molecules back to CO2. In exceptional cases, in low-oxygen environments, the molecules remain preserved as hydrocarbons with the solar energy locked inside. When we burn coal, oil, or gas, we release ancient solar energy. We get warm, cook food, make steel, and race automobiles, with ancient sunlight. However, when we burn coal and oil, we also release the carbon back into the atmosphere. And there, as we now know, lies the rub.

Most modern coal deposits, about 56%, originated with the first land plants, about 300 million years ago. We call this historic period the “Carboniferous” precisely because marine and land plants reduced massive volumes of carbon from the atmosphere and thereby changed Earth’s ecological regime. We won’t be surprised that Earth’s temperature dropped precipitously during this period as CO2 left the atmosphere to become carbohydrates and proteins in living organisms. Younger coal deposits formed in the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods, 100 to 200 million years ago. During this period, however, as land animals and dead organic matter returned carbon to the atmosphere, Earth warmed again. About 64 million years ago, an asteroid hit Earth in the Yucatan, changed the ecological order again, and Earth cooled until humans started mining and burning that ancient sunlight.

Humans discovered coal about five millennia ago in China, where inhabitants used the black rock for heating and metallurgy, particularly smelting copper. Later Greek and Roman empires mined and burned coal. The Aztecs in Mexico burned coal, used it as a soil additive, and carved it for ornaments.

In hydrocarbon deposits, pressure over time progressively concentrates the energy. Peat, the precursor to coal, contains about 7,500 BTUs (British thermal units) per pound, about the same as wood. Imagine burning a pound of wood in a wood stove. That’s how much energy a pound of peat, represents.

A pound of top-grade coal, anthracite or premium bituminous coal, provides twice that much energy, up to 16,000 BTUs. This is why coal was considered valuable, because it delivered more energy per pound than wood.

Decker Powder River Coal Mine

Powder River Lignite mine. Photo: Tim Aubry, Greenpeace.

Coal, even high-grade coal, emits almost twice the carbon per unit of energy as natural gas and 30 percent more than gasoline. Coal coke, refined from coal and used to make steel, is even worse. However, as with most other resources, humans “high graded” coal, taking the easy to extract, highest energy coal first. The best historic anthracite and bituminous coal is gone. The production of anthracite peaked in the UK in 1913, in the US in 1914, and in Germany in 1958. High-grade anthracite now represents about 1% of global coal reserves. Coal companies are left to scour the lower-grade dregs – the sub-bituminous and brown lignite – with deadly consequences. There is no such thing as “clean coal,” a promotional slogan with no relationship to physical reality.

Lignite contains no more energy-per-pound than peat, and sometimes less, down to 4,000 BTUs per pound. This means that for the same amount of energy received from high grade anthracite, lignite releases two-to-four-times the carbon into the atmosphere. This is the low-grade coal from Montana that Vancouver’s Port authorities want to ship to Asia. But it gets worse when we consider the local health impact of this coal.

In sickness and health

While heating Earth’s atmosphere and turning oceans acidic, coal kills humans.

In the unusually cold winter of 1952, London residents burned significantly more coal, and during an atmospheric inversion in December, a black smog covered London. A citizen fell over dead every thirty-six seconds, 12,000 dead, over five days. Some 100,000 people sought treatment for respiratory ailments.

Coal, however, does not have to be burned to cause health problems. Today, the World Health Organization estimates that 1-million people die annually from coal-polluted air and water. Millions suffer from coal-induced pneumonia, bronchitis, asthma, and heart failure. US health authorities estimate that US workers loose 5 million work days each year from coal-related illness. Globally, those illnesses lead to hundreds of millions of lost days.

Coal miners with black Lung, Appalachia. Photo: Greenpeace

Coal miners have seen the worst of it. Black Lung disease, pneumoconiosis, slays thousands of miners every year, and leaves the living with lifetime lung ailments. Historically, and even now, coal mine workers suffer from coal dust, gas poisoning, explosions, mine collapses, suffocation, and equipment accidents. In the US, about one thousand coal miners die annually. China officially reports about 6,000 deaths annually, but unofficial estimates suggest thousands more, some 300 deaths per week, year-round.

Every species, habitat, ecosystem, river valley, and the atmosphere itself also suffer. Earth suffers. Annually, coal-burning industries release some 100-million tonnes of solid waste into Earth’s atmosphere and water, including fly ash, flue-gas, sludge, mercury, uranium, thorium, and arsenic. Imagine a hundred-million truckloads of toxic waste dumped into Earth’s ecosystems every year, 200 trucks per minute. Year-round.

Coal and Water

As global warming leaves Earth ecosystems dryer, coal mining and processing consume and pollute those diminishing water supplies. A World Resources Institute report warns that coal now threatens the world’s water resources.

During its full life cycle – mining, transport, use, and disposal – one tonne of coal will consume about 8,000 liters of water. The world produces 7.8 billion tonnes annually, requiring some 60 trillion liters, 22 million Olympic swimming pools, of water.

Women wash in coal polluted river in Maharashtra India. Photo: Zisdhaan Latif, Greenpeace

Meanwhile, coal plants, withdraw, divert, and pollute much more water than they consume. A typical coal plant, with a once-through cooling system, withdraws between 70 and 180 billion gallons of water annually. This process disrupts fish and amphibian nurseries and aquatic food webs.

When coal mines expose pyrite, which is common, the sulfur in pyrite reacts with oxygen and water to create sulfuric acid, turning lakes and rivers acidic, even long after a mine closes. In the 1980s, along the Myntdu River, on the India-Bangladesh border, scores of fishing villages abandoned historic livelihoods when fish could no longer survive in the acidic river. In the Pennsylvania coal fields, in the US, four thousand kilometers of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers are so acidic, they cannot support fish.

Mountaintop removal shoves rocks, millions of tons, into river valleys. In the US, the practice has buried over 3,000 kilometers of Appalachian streams, displaced communities, and obliterated watershed biodiversity.

Coal-fired power stations, especially in the age of low-grade brown lignite, like that from Montana, disrupt downstream agriculture with both acid and alkaline run-off. Coal plants release mercury, which accumulates in fish, disrupts reproduction and growth, enters the human community, and causes neurological defects in infants and cardiovascular health problems for adults.  Coal-related water-stress has impacted communities in China, US, Kazakhstan, South Korea, Australia, Indonesia, Japan, South Africa, Egypt, and Pakistan.

Facing the Limits

Coal-power companies have proposed 1199 new coal-fired power plants in 59 countries, while actively dodging environmental laws. The Australian government led by Tony Abbott abolished the country’s climate laws before approving Australia’s largest coal mine. Eskom power company in South Africa has proposed exempting themselves from emission standards. A Greenpeace study found that pollution from Eskom’s coal-fired power plants already causes an estimated 2,200 premature deaths annually, at a social cost of some 30 billion rand, including costs to treat mercury’s neurotoxic effects on children.

Eskom’s proposed non-compliance would allow them to emit an additional 210 tonnes of mercury annually, 560,000 tonnes of particulates, 2.9 million tonnes of nitrogen-oxides, and 28 million tonnes of sulfur-dioxide, a plan that amounts to random murder of citizens.

Earth’s productive capacity has limits, and pushing those limits has consequences. The remaining low-grade coal reserves will deliver sickness, death, and ecological destruction.

Proposed route of coal barges from Fraser River Docks, to Texada Island deep sea terminal, where the coal would be shipped to Asia.

A coal export terminal at the mouth of British Columbia’s Fraser River will bring an epidemic of coal-dust illnesses – pneumonia, bronchitis, heart failure – to local residents, particularly along the train line. Here is a video of a coal train in Pennsylvania that provides a vision of what is coming to British Columbia if the coal barons get their way.

There are better ways to stay warm. Environmental groups have articulated alternatives for decades: Conservation and renewable energy. This is not complicated. Earth has reached the genuine biophysical limits that ecologists have warned about since the 19th century. Digging after the dirty dregs of hydrocarbons amounts to civilization’s suicide. If common sense should prevail, we would close coal mines, build out renewable energy systems, and ditch the wasteful lifestyles that drive energy demand.



Ecojustice lawsuit:

Coal train coal dust cloud, video:

World Resources Institute report, coal and water:

The Origin of Coal and World Reserves, Fangui Zeng, Taiyuan University of Technology, China:

“Environmental Impact of Coal Mining on Water Regime and Its Management,” Tiwary, R. K. (2001-11-01); Water, Air, & Soil Pollution 132 (1–2): 185–199. doi:10.1023/A:1012083519667

Coal, river pollution, alkaline soil, Oregon State University: Managing irrigation water quality, Oregon State University, US

Greenpeace China, Coal mining, Quilian mountains, China:

Greenpeace: Brown lignite mines on Germany-Poland border:

“License to Kill,” Greenpeace report on Eskom’s emission non-compliance:

Australia: Abbott Government abolishes climate laws, approves coal mine: