Recently, Gord Park was traveling east towards Cloverdale near 154 Street, when he saw a freight train heading west on the line that runs parallel to Colebrook Road.
At first, he thought the train was on fire. “The amount of coal dust coming from the cars was disgraceful,” he said, pointing out that the track is adjacent to farmland where food crops are grown.
Alarmed, he grabbed his cellphone and took a picture.
“Not only is this coal dust contaminating the air we breathe, it’s settling on all the crops and fields along its route,” he said.
After contacting the B.C. Environment Ministry and Metro Vancouver with his concerns, he submitted the photo to The Reporter.
“I thought it was something you might be interested in,” he said. “Sadly, the picture doesn’t really do justice as to how bad it really was.”
Park, who snapped his picture at 5:35 p.m. on May 13, didn’t get a look at which company the train belonged to, but he thinks it was CN.
It’s one of roughly six coal trains a day that run through Cloverdale heading to Westshore Terminals at Deltaport.
Most of the coal would be from eastern B.C. or Alberta coal mines and carried either by CP or CN.
Salem Woodrow, a spokesperson for CP Rail, said the company was looking to confirm if if the photo depicts a CP train.
“CP takes the issue of coal dusting very seriously,” she said, adding the company would be contacting its supply chain partners to determine what happened.
Woodrow said over the years, CP has taken a number of steps to address concerns about coal dust, including incorporating different loading techniques, the installation of a permanent re-spraying facility, and continuously monitoring its coal trains.
“Following loading at the mines, each coal car is sprayed with an environmentally benign glue-like substance that creates a plastic-like sealant on top of the coal,” she said. “Each gondola is then re-sprayed approximately half way to the coast at our re-spray facility at Tappen, B.C.” The sealant forms a hardened crust that prevents the product from shifting during transport.
The practice, she said, prevents the product from shifting and has “virtually eliminated the coal dust.”
While CP was still trying to pinpoint the train, she stressed, “We take the issue very seriously. We are in constant contact with our supply partners,” she said. “At this point we don’t know what specifically happened.”
Park, meanwhile, is surprised that none of the train’s crew members raised the alarm.
“In my opinion there’s no way the operator and crew couldn’t see what was going on,” he said.
Since making his inquiry, Park hasn’t had a response from the B.C. Environment Ministry.
Metro Vancouver, meanwhile, told him they don’t deal with coal dust on federal rail lines.
“It’s the usual bureaucratic pass the buck, it seems,” he said.
Surrey’s Bob Campbell is a past president of the West Panorama Ridge Ratepayers Association who’s been working to reduce the impacts of freight trains on local residents for two decades, from train whistles to coal dust.
He suspects the coal clouds Park captured with his camera phone may have been created through a combination of high winds and dry weather.
While the number of complaints about coal dust has been consistent over the year, the number of trains going through the area has increased.
“It’s been a constant issue,” he said.
It’s worse when there are windy and dry conditions.
“When you get wind across the top of the car, it acts like a vortex,” Campbell said. Even empty trains returning from Delta contain coal, he added, because they aren’t washed out after they’re unloaded.
The dust settles on decks and cars along the rail route.
“It’s a pretty obvious problem, for sure,” Campbell said.
Health impacts are a concern.
“A lot of the railways say it’s not a big problem,” he said. Diesel particulate in train exhaust is even more troublesome because the particle size is much smaller, going deeper into the lungs.
“The bottom line is, this stuff is bad for us.”
While it’s not known if the cloudy coal train was a CN train, Emily Hamer, regional manager for CN’s public affairs, said coal produced, shipped and managed in B.C. is safe – it’s an inert mineral that’s not considered a dangerous or hazardous material by Transport Canada and is safely handled by workers.
“As coal is transported, steps are taken to ensure the coal remains in the railcars and on the terminals,” she told The Reporter in an email. “Rail cars are sprayed at the mines with a coating to create a hardened crust on top of the coal. The terminals use the best available proven technology with environmental management systems and monitoring programs in place.”
Members of the public may direct their concerns to CN’s Public Inquiry Line at 1-888-888-5909 or via email at email@example.com.