Lowell Chandler held up the palms of his hands so members of the Missoula City Council and the public could see the black smears from his home near the rail yard.
Chandler had rubbed his hand on a railing before speaking Wednesday at a Public Safety and Health Committee meeting about the way train operations and the rail yard affect Missoula residents.
"There's definitely coal dust coming off the trains," Chandler said. "I don't know if it's from the loaded trains or the empty trains."
Some members of the public noted coal dust as one problem for rail yard neighbors, and Chandler said it's possible the dust flies when empty cars with coal residue bang together.
Montana Rail Link and the Missoula City-County Health Department disputed the claim that coal dust is present.
Councilor Dave Strohmaier, committee chairman, called the meeting because he has heard concerns from the community about potentially adverse effects from the trains on the local neighborhoods. He said Wednesday's meeting was just a beginning.
Jim Lewis, with Montana Rail Link, said coal dust could be a problem for the company, so MRL looks for its presence. That's because coal dust can hurt the health of employees and lead to safety breaches such as derailments.
"We have found no evidence of coal dust on our property, and it's something we're concerned about," Lewis said.
Missoula City-County Health Department environmental health director Jim Carlson also was skeptical that coal dust is present. He said it is important to understand the coal gets sprayed with a "dust palliative" when it's loaded onto the cars - and as it's being poured into the cars, according to MRL.
Carlson said the black smears on Chandler's hands could be rubber from tires or black mold - but Councilman Bob Jaffe said it'd make sense to test the sooty substance and find out for sure.
In any case, Carlson said dust from coal that doesn't get sprayed down probably flies off the train cars in the first few miles of the high-speed trip. Coal is crystalline in nature, he said, so it fractures and tends to break off in small particles that aren't considered dangerous from a respiratory standpoint.
The arguments didn't appease all members of the public, though. Nick Engelfried, who said he wants the city to do whatever is in its authority to prevent the increase in coal train traffic, said he was surprised to learn from the health department that no one monitors coal dust.
"So it's nice to hear MRL thinks there's no coal dust, or they haven't noticed any coal dust, but it sounds like many of the residents who live around the tracks have noticed dust coming from the trains," Engelfried said.
Even though the rail company is making its engines more efficient so they cut down on emissions, he said he's also concerned any improvements in air quality will be lost because of more trains running through Missoula. Mainly, though, he wants Missoula to continue its history of being a leader when it comes to sustainability.
"The city has been out in front on those things for many years, and now we're being asked to become a conduit for the dirtiest fuel in the world so that it can be transported to international markets and eventually burn where it will contribute to climate change," he said.
Coal dust wasn't the only concern, though. Missoula's economy has been on the ropes, and MRL's Lewis noted the company makes enormous contributions as an employer in Montana with an annual payroll of $63 million.
Across the state, Montana Rail Link employs 950, including 350 in Missoula. Employees earn on average $62,000 including health benefits and profit sharing; he estimated the low salary at $40,000 a year.
Councilwoman Caitlin Copple asked if the company would need to add jobs in Missoula should train traffic increase, and Lewis said it would. However, he also said he didn't expect a large increase in coal transport.
Currently, some 13.2 trains per day run through the Missoula rail yard, including 2.5 trains of loaded coal and 2.5 trains of unloaded coal, according to MRL. The average train is 100 to 115 cars.
"We don't anticipate a huge growth in amount of coal volume across our line. If it were to double, that would be significant for us," Lewis said.
Noise pollution and diesel emissions have been an ongoing concern near the rail yard. In a report from the Office of Planning and Grants, senior transportation officer Ann Cundy said a project to install devices on train engines that cut down emissions appears to have been successful.
With a $1.13 million grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Montana Rail Link upgraded 34 locomotives so each has an "auxiliary power unit," which cuts down on idling time and reduces pollutants.
Councilman Bob Jaffe estimated the payback time for that $1.13 million was three months, and he couldn't believe it took so much time and public money for the change. But he also said the outcome "seemed like a real success."
The units help keep the engines warm but use a lot less fuel. According to OPG, the units have two cylinders compared with a locomotive's 20 and use half a gallon of fuel per hour compared with the four to five a locomotive uses.
The installations translated into 951,500 gallons of diesel saved from July 2010 to July 2011, according to the Office of Planning and Grants. The office calculated idling time was cut 80 percent and pollutants reduced after the devices were installed.
Basically, one train load takes 300 to 400 trucks off the roads, Lewis said. So rail cars are a "green alternative to trucking product in the United States," and railroads "a friend to the environment."
Cundy said it's difficult to accurately measure ambient air quality improvements from the devices, but she pointed to anecdotal evidence the project worked in the first winter after units were installed: "The Health Department didn't receive any complaints from the surrounding neighborhoods about smoke from those idling locomotives, which is I think a great thing."
Complaints came Wednesday, though. Blair Logan, who commutes to Missoula from the Flathead Valley but has spent much time on the Northside, said she supports the neighbors who don't want to put up with pollution from the rail yard.
Logan read a letter from a friend and rail yard neighbor, Stacy Max, who worries about what her children are breathing when they play outside and the chemicals being absorbed in their skin.
"There have been days I have made my 4-year-old come inside" because of the diesel fumes, Max said in her letter.
Harold Hoem is a fan of passenger trains, and he reminisced about riding a train to the Rose Bowl in 1955. But he said coal shipments to China are going to increase, and that means a range of problems from more noise pollution to more carbon dioxide emissions.
"There are so many concerns that people are coming up with it's hard to tell where to start," Hoem said.
At the meeting, Councilwoman Cynthia Wolken asked how the reductions in emissions and diesel were calculated, and no one answered the question.
Wolken also said she wants more detailed data on the concentrations of pollutants near the Missoula rail yard, where the problem lies. People who live near a rail yard don't give up their right to a clean and healthy environment, she said.
"Obviously, there's some sort of matter that's in these people's yards, and we need to find out what it is," Wolken said.
Reporter Keila Szpaller can be reached at @KeilaSzpaller, 523-5262, email@example.com or on MissoulaRedTape.com.