Missoula City Councilman Dave Strohmaier wants to know if coal dust poses a health problem even in just small amounts – 1 percent to 5 percent of overall material.
Some residents in Missoula are worried about coal dust near the railyard, and the Missoula City Council requested the Missoula City-County Health Department conduct tests for it near the tracks. Last month, the results came back, and Wednesday department officials presented them to a council committee.
Some councilors questioned the methodology used in the tests and expressed disappointment that one out of four samples couldn’t be analyzed. But Strohmaier and Councilor Bob Jaffe said the data appear to show the presence of coal dust is minimal.
“There is some amount of it, but also what is a likely interpretation is in the end, it’s a minimal if not negligible amount of the dust that folks were exposed to over there,” Jaffe said.
He said it contributes to overall pollution, but it’s not one of the significant contributors.
Strohmaier, though, added that even the arguably tiny amounts of dust contradict statements from the railroad company: “The presence of any coal dust runs counter to some of the claims by Montana Rail Link that there is not coal dust whatsoever.”
The subject is a topic of interest because of projected increases in coal exports from the Powder River Basin to Asia. The most direct train route to ports on the West Coast goes through Missoula.
Montana Rail Link, though, isn’t anticipating a large escalation in coal traffic, and its officials have noted mountain passes the trains must travel make the projected increases nearly impossible.
At the meeting, Nick Engelfried of the Blue Skies Campaign said he wants more information, and he reminded councilors he’s worried the small percent of coal dust now could grow to a larger percentage if coal traffic increases as some analysts project. The campaign is a Missoula group opposed to increased coal shipments.
“It does seem like this is only the very tip of the iceberg of information gathering that we need to do on this subject, and there are a lot of unanswered questions,” said Engelfried, who pushed for a more methodical scientific study.
While the sampling detected coal, it wasn’t designed to measure some outcomes, according to the Health Department’s Ben Schmidt.
“There is some question about the health impacts from coal dust. That really wasn’t the intent or purpose of this study. It was purely to look at what was being deposited on surfaces,” Schmidt said.
The council didn’t take action Wednesday, but Strohmaier said the health effects of even a small amount of coal dust are one of several topics worth exploring in the future.
Reporter Keila Szpaller can be reached at @KeilaSzpaller, 523-5262, email@example.com.