UW News

November 4, 2013

UW Bothell prof, students present crowd-funded study of coal train emissions


UW News | UW Bothell

As the Northwest considers proposals to build ship terminals to export more U.S. coal to Asia, a University of Washington Bothell team took an unusual route to measuring the air-quality hazard from trains carrying coal to the coast. Unable to fund the project through traditional sources, they went online and found 271 people who were willing to make an average donation of $75 to have experts answer the question.

With that support Dan Jaffe, an atmospheric science professor at UW Bothell, and four undergraduate students from the Seattle and Bothell campuses spent recent months sampling the air near the tracks that go to the proposed West Coast export terminals.

Presentation PosterJaffe will present first results from the study in a public talk at 7 p.m. Monday, Nov. 4 at UW Bothell. The results measure the amount of small- and medium-sized particles released by different types of trains in Seattle and in the Columbia River Gorge. He will give a second, more technical presentation of the results at the UW Seattle campus Friday, Nov. 22 at 3:30 p.m. in Johnson Hall 75.

The project began in April when Jaffe, frustrated by the lack of funding through traditional channels, put his research proposal on the crowd-funding website Microryza, launched in 2012 by two UW graduates as a kind of Kickstarter dedicated to science research.

“There’s been a lot of questions and controversy about whether coal trains leak coal dust into the air,” Jaffe said. “I thought there were important scientific questions that needed to be answered.”

With help from a column in the Seattle Times and a blog mention from Cliff Mass, UW professor of atmospheric sciences, the project surpassed its funding goal, raising just over $20,500 in a week and a half. Jaffe used the extra money to add a second sampling site.

  • UW Bothell press release on the preliminary findings
  • Jaffe will give a seminar at the UW Nov. 22 at 3:30 p.m. in Johnson Hall 75

During the summer and fall the team sampled more than 500 trains, including passenger trains, trains carrying coal and other types of freight trains. The device bought for the project sampled air near the tracks, while a weather gauge tracked the wind direction and other variables and a webcam recorded the type of train passing by.

The team sampled for about a month at a North Seattle home near railroad tracks carrying coal north, one of about 20 locations offered by project supporters, Jaffe said. The team also sampled for about 10 days at a Columbia River Gorge site near tracks that carry trains west over the Cascade Mountains.

Four undergraduates tested all the equipment, developed the computer programs, put the instruments out in the field and checked on them periodically. They worked with Jaffe to analyze the data and identify the amount of small- and medium-sized air particles present as trains passed by.

The undergraduate student team (l-r): Jeffrey Thayer,  Justin Putz (UW Bothell), Greg Hof and Sofya Malashanka.

The student team (l-r): Jeffrey Thayer, Justin Putz (UW Bothell), Greg Hof and Sonya Malashanka.

The team is preparing to submit the findings to an open-access journal in atmospheric sciences, but Jaffe said he felt it was important to share preliminary results during the 2013 calendar year so that they could be useful in the current environmental assessment process.

“I want this study to inform the community, industry and those who are making the decision to increase coal train traffic through our region,” Jaffe said. “These preliminary findings should be a wake-up call that this region needs more in-depth research on the air quality impact, and funding for that research, in order to make a more informed decision.”

Crowd-funding the project meant working on a shoestring budget, under intense public scrutiny, and in this case with a tight timeline. But if there was no other funding source, Jaffe would do it all again.

“It strikes me as unusual that we have major public-policy decision taking place in an absence of information,” Jaffe said. “So would I do another? I guess I would.”


For more information, contact Lisa Hall, public information officer at UW Bothell, at 425-352-5461 or lhall@uwb.edu. Contact Jaffe at 425-352-5357 or djaffe@uw.edu.