Coal Dust

The Meaning of Green Podcast & Coal Dust 

In the Meaning of Green, Vivian Thompson, former member of the Virginia Air Pollution Control Board, reveals how coal industry companies value profit over people and public health. The Sierra Club’s grassroots and legal efforts to curb coal dust pollution are featured in two recent episodes. Coal Dust is Black shines a light on the poisoning of a small town in the coalfields of western Virginia, while The Power Game reveals how low-income and Black communities in coastal Virginia disproportionately bear the brunt of coal dust pollution. 


Dr. Vivian Thomson · S3 Episode 1: Coal Dust Is Black


Dr. Vivian Thomson · S3 Episode 2: The Power Game


Getting Dust out of our Air and our Communities

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Coal Trains Emit significant amounts of Coal Dust 

  • Companies transport coal in uncovered open-top rail cars. This allows significant amounts of coal dust to blow over residential and agricultural areas, and pollute waterways, crops, and the air we breathe.
  • Each car on a coal train releases 500 to 2,000 pounds of coal dust over the course of its journey, according to a study by Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway. Thus, a typical 125-car coal train could release up to 250,000 pounds of coal per trip. (1)
  • Chemical sprays called surfactants, which may pose a threat to human health, are sometimes applied to help prevent some dust from escaping rail cars. But no spray is 100 percent effective. (2)
  • Experts say surfactants may not only threaten human health, but also potentially contaminate surface water, groundwater, and soil; pollute the air; and harm native flora and fauna. (3)
  • Currently, there is no binding requirement for shippers to apply surfactants—a utility coalition estimates that only 30 percent of coal shippers now do so. (4)


Coal Dust is harmful to our health

  • Coal dust dirties the air and contaminates crops and drinking water.
  • Tests show that coal dust contains arsenic, lead, mercury, chromium, nickel, selenium, and other toxic heavy metals. (5)
  • Exposure to coal dust is linked to decreased lung capacity, increased childhood bronchitis, asthma, pneumonia, (6) emphysema and heart disease. (7) In a community near a large coal terminal in Virginia, the number of residents suffering from asthma was found to be more than twice the city and state average. (8)
  • Areas with high levels of coal dust pollution have increased infant mortality rates and decreased life expectancies. (9)


Coal Dust compromises safety

  • Coal dust causes deadly train derailments and fires, and decreases visibility for those driving vehicles near tracks.
  • Coal dust clogs spaces in the rail ballast and turns into a solid, plastic-like substance when wet. This reduces the friction needed for safe rail operation, decreases track stability, and can lead to train derailments. (10)
  • The Vice President of Transportation at Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway testified that coal dust was “absolutely a contributing factor” for back-to-back train derailments in 2005. (11)
  • Seven coal train derailments have occurred during the summer of 2012—exact causes have yet to be determined.
  • More than 40 percent of the coal burned in our nation’s remaining coal plants is strip-mined on federal public lands in the Powder River Basin (PRB) of northeastern Wyoming and southeastern Montana.
  • Coal from the Powder River Basin is highly flammable. (12) Trains carrying PRB coal have been known to arrive at their destinations with rail cars partially on fire. (13)
  • Coal piles at terminals and ports have been known to spontaneously combust. (14) Trains carrying coal raise the likelihood of starting fires on properties along routes. Clouds of coal dust reduce visibility for drivers on roads near railroad tracks.


Coal Dust pollutes the environment

  • Coal dust and its toxic components have been found at high levels near coal terminals.
  • Wind carries coal dust long distances, dispersing toxins such as arsenic and mercury into soil (15) and waterways. (16) Coal dust pollutes soil.
  • At a coal terminal in Norfolk, Virginia, soil samples one kilometer away contained up to 20 percent coal dust. (17)
  • Coal dust harms aquatic life, according to a study of salmon and steelhead. (18) Those two species are already in decline in the Northwest.
  • Stormwater and wastewater released from coal storage facilities are typically acidic, and coal runoff may contain high concentrations of copper, iron, aluminum, and nickel. (19) This can devastate the delicate chemistry of aquatic environments. 


Coal dust is one part of a long list of health, safety, economic, and environmental impacts of dirty and destructive coal exports. For more information on the impacts of coal exports, visit




  • 1 Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, “Coal Dust FAQ,” Mar 2011, http://
  • 2 LeSeur, John, “Coal Dust Legal Developments Update,” NCTA Annual Meeting & Conference, Colorado, Sept 2011.
  • 3 Piechota, Thomas, et al., Eds., “Potential Environmental Impacts of Dust Suppressants,” May 2002, Nevada.
  • 4 Tavanger, Sayeh, “Some shippers not complying with BNSF coal dust tariff,” Nov 3, 2011, Platts Energy Week, WUSA 9.
  • 5 Aneja, Viney, “Characterization of Particulate Matter (PM10) in Roda, Virginia,” 2008.
  • 6 Brook, Robert, et al, “Particulate Matter Air Pollution and Cardiovascular Disease: An Update to the Scientific Statement of the American Heart Association,” May 2010.
  • 7 Landen, Deborah, et al, “Coal Dust Exposure and Mortalitity from Ischemic Heart Disease Among a Cohort of U.S. Coal Miners”, July 2011, American Journal of Industrial Medicine, Vol. 53, Issue 10.
  • 8 “Health Needs Assessment of the Southeast Community City of Newport News 2005,” Peninsula Health District, Virginia Department of Health.
  • 9 Brook, “Particulate Matter Air Pollution.”
  • 10 Surface Transportation Board Decision, “Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corporation - Petition for Declaratory Order,” Docket No. FD 35305, Mar 2011.
  • 11 Ibid.
  • 12 Hossfeld, Roderick and Rod Hatt, “PRB Coal Degredation – Causes and Cures,” PBR Coal Users’ Group.
  • 13 Ibid.
  • 14 Ibid.
  • 15 Bounds, William and Karen Johannesson, “Arsenic Additions to Soils from Airborne Coal Dust Originating at a Major Coal Shipping Terminal,” 21 June 2007, Water, Air, & Soil Pollution, Volume 185.
  • 16 Johnson, Ryan and Bustin, R.M., “The fate of coal dust in a marine environment,” 2006, International Journal of Coal Geology, 68.
  • 17 Bounds, “Arsenic Additions to Soils.”
  • 18 Campbell, P.M and R.H. Devlin, “Increased CYP1A1 and ribosomal protein L5 gene expression in a teleost: The response of juvenile Chinook salmon to coal dust exposure,” 1997, Aquatic Toxicology, Vol 38.
  • 19 Environmental Protection Agency, “Steam Electric  Power  Generating Point Source Category: Final Detailed Study Report,” Oct 2009, EPA 821- R-09-008.