Coal Trains Cause Concern for Missoula Citizens


Lowell Chandler has lived across the street from the railroad tracks on Missoula’s Northside for a little over a year and a half.

Life was initially peaceful for Chandler, but that changed last fall when he started noticing an increase in noise, fumes, and black dust around the neighboring train yard.

He blames the noise on more empty coal cars stopping in Missoula to couple before returning to the coal-rich Powder River Basin in southeast Montana and northeast Wyoming. During the coupling process, empty coal cars slam together and attach to a locomotive, which will then take them east to pick up another load.

“The noise is first kinda when I became aware of the coal trains,” Chandler said.

The 21-year-old environmental studies major at the University of Montana rented a sophisticated noise monitor and took several measurements around his neighborhood. The highest measurement he observed was 119 decibels or a noise equivalent to a jackhammer or thunderclap.

Environmental Protection Agency guidelines consider a safe environmental noise level to be around 70 decibels.

In the wake of the noise increases, Chandler also noticed a thick black residue accumulating on his windows and outdoor furniture. Once cleaned, the residue would rebuild in about a week.

He isn’t sure if the residue is coal dust or diesel fumes but he’s alarmed at how this may impact his health and that of his neighbors.

The freight trains of the Missoula rail yards.

The freight trains of the Missoula rail yards.

Chandler is among a growing group of citizens concerned with the potential of dozens of additional coal trains passing through this scenic mountain community.

The Powder River Basin is the largest source of coal in the United States. If proposed export terminals in Washington and Oregon are built or expanded to meet Chinese demand for U.S. coal, most of the shipments will come from mines in Wyoming and Montana.

The Western Organization of Resource Councils estimates that a yearly 140 million ton export market could be created. A report by WORC states that to meet the increase, an additional 40 trains a day would need to roll through communities like Missoula.

Garon Smith, a chemistry professor at UM, said concerns about black residue in Missoula are nothing new.

“There are people that complained about deposits of black material down on their houses long before the coal train issue came up,” Smith said. He suspects this mostly was due to locomotives idling while in the city — a problem that has been alleviated by technology.

Suann Lundsberg, director of media relations for Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, said since 2000, the company has purchased 2,500 more fuel-efficient locomotives. Automatic engine shutdown devices have been installed on most of the engines to help reduce idling.

Over the past 10 years, BNSF’s fuel consumption has increased 14 percent, while the volume of freight moved has increased 29 percent, Lundsberg said.

Missoula has had past violations of the Clean Air Act in regards to the more harmful small particulates. These are usually produced by smoke from wood burning stoves. Smith credits tougher regulations for helping to improve the air quality in Missoula over the years.

Larger particles, like those found in coal dust, are less harmful to citizens than the smaller ones. Smith said this is because the mucous membranes trap most of them before they enter the body.

Black residue that's built up on homes and structures near the Missoula rail yards.

Black residue that's built up on homes and structures near the Missoula rail yards.

According to Smith, coal dust, diesel particles, rubber from tires, and even pollen could all be responsible for the residue on Chandler’s window frames.

“The likelihood that much of that is coal dust is pretty small in my mind.”

He said the chance for dust is minimal because coal from the Power River Basin has traveled 350 miles before reaching Missoula, and the high speeds during transit would dislodge most of the dust. He added that spray barriers applied by coal shippers have greatly helped.

Lundsberg said steps have been taken by BNSF to greatly reduce coal dust.

BNSF now requires all coal shippers to use methods on their coal cars to reduce dust by 85 percent compared to coal cars where no measures have been taken.

“The application of certain topper agents when used in combination with modified loading can reduce coal dust losses by at least 85 percent.” Lundsberg said.

BNSF ships 90 percent of the coal mined in the Powder River Basin.

The potential impact to the quality of life enjoyed by many Missoulians is a huge part of the issue for Chandler. There have been many nights when he’s had to close his windows at night because of the diesel fumes.

He fears what may happen if more trains pass through town.

“Our air quality is already pretty poor and with a potential 40 or 60 trains coming through there’s going to be a tremendous increase in diesel emissions,” Chandler said.

It’s bothersome to Chandler that the health impact of coal dust on communities hasn’t been studied all that much. With the expansion of U.S. coal exports to China looming, he wants to see more research done soon.

“Why is it OK for a private company to subject us to coal dust when we’re not benefiting at all from the coal shipments?” he asked. “The public has right to know what they’re being subjected to.”

A train engine sits on the edge of Missoula beneath Mount Sentinel.

A train engine sits on the edge of Missoula beneath Mount Sentinel.

Smith said though local and state governments have no jurisdiction over the coal trains rolling through town, any data taken locally can be given to federal regulators and they can take it under advisement. He added that recently the Missoula City-County Health Department took measurements of air quality near the railroad property in Missoula.

The results are expected back from a Chicago testing laboratory in a few weeks.

While little can be done about the current coal train situation, Smith said things like turning the lights off when you leave a room can help,

“Anything we can do in the way of energy conservation is going to be the best thing we can do to reduce emissions,“ he said.

Chandler has been heavily involved with the Blue Skies and Coal Don’t Mix campaign. The advocacy group raises awareness about the expansion of U.S. coal exports.

Recently, local members have been working with Missoula city officials on passing a resolution that prioritizes citizens’ health while giving people a voice in environmental impact statements.

Chandler stressed he doesn’t have anything against the railroad companies.

“I like the railroads because it’s the most environmentally efficient way to ship freight,“ he said.

He just wants to ensure that the concerned voices in the community are heard.


Missoula writer Mark Boatman, at home with his typewriter.

Mark Boatman has a passion for informing the public on issues important to their lives. He’s covered stories on the agricultural decline in Eastern Montana, issues surrounding Medicaid reimbursement and disability access at the University of Montana. Boatman has been published in the Montana Kaimin, Missoulian, and

A native of North Dakota, Boatman will graduate from the University of Montana School of Journalism in May 2012.