On Friday morning, I boarded a plane in Chicago and by the time I touched down in Seattle, Trump had been sworn into office. We’ve received a number of questions from clients and friends asking us how the regime change will impact environmental law and policy in the Pacific Northwest. The quick answer is one that recognizes that state-level politics (which drives much of the environmental policy in Washington) has not changed in the seismic manner that federal politics have with this election. And, at federal agencies, while we are already seeing leadership changes (for instance, Dennis McLerran is no longer the head of Region 10), the staff of those agencies will not dramatically change—so the people that have made day-to-day decisions across multiple administrations will still be doing so.

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This week has been a week of catching up, so some of this may be old news to you, but maybe you have a tall stack of things you aspire to read someday and you’ll have some sympathy…

St. Mary’s Cement Inc. Against the EPA
Out of the Sixth Circuit, by way of Michigan, a

EPA released a draft of its Clean Power Plan Rule yesterday, a topic that dominated my Twitter feed all day and already is sharpening the debate on the use of policy and the Clean Air Act to reduce carbon emissions. Our first reaction to the rule was that it likely will have little impact on carbon policy in Washington State. We already enjoy one of the least carbon-intensive energy infrastructures due to the abundance of hydroelectric energy in Washington, and Washington has already negotiated the phase-out of its only coal fired power plant, operated by TransAlta in Centralia, through the passage of Engrossed Second Substitute Senate Bill 5769 back in 2011.

Then, yesterday afternoon, the AP released this story with the headline, “EPA says Washington must cut emissions by 72 percent,” and a picture of a coal train in downtown Seattle. The article contains a few quotes from various parties regarding the implications of the proposed Clean Power Plan Rule in Washington. I was curious where the 72 percent number came from, and decided to dig into the draft rule yesterday evening.

Here is what I found:


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Last week, Dan Jaffe’s atmospheric research group at the University of Washington released the results of a study of particulate emissions associated with rail traffic here in Seattle and along the Columbia River. That study was motivated by the controversy over coal exports, and was funded by contributions from the Sierra Club and through crowdfunding. We have been watching how this study has been received by the public and used by both sides of the coal export debate, and thought it would be useful to provide some context for Dr. Jaffe’s research, especially because this research is a good example of how science, policy, and law interact.

The paper is fairly readable even by someone who lacks a scientific background and is worth the read. To summarize, Dr. Jaffe and his group sampled particulate matter at two locations in Washington, a porch of a house located about 25 meters from train tracks in the Blue Ridge neighborhood in Seattle, and a location along the Columbia River. The Blue Ridge site is the subject of the most analysis. What the researchers observed there was a spike in fine particles as trains passed by. For passenger and freight trains, that spike occurred when the beginning of the train passed the site, and was attributed to diesel emissions from the locomotive. Coal trains had two spikes, one associated with the locomotive and a second associated with larger particles attributed to the coal contained in open-topped cars.

The part of the paper that is receiving the most media coverage is a back-of-the-envelope calculation in the final paragraphs where the authors conclude that a 50% increase in train traffic “would bring the PM2.5 concentrations at [the Blue Ridge] site up to about 14 ug/m3, which is higher than the new U.S. National Ambient Air Quality Standard (NAAQS) of 12 ug/m3 (annual average).” Media and bloggers are using this conclusion to proclaim that coal trains are “degrading” air quality, such as this article in The Olympian, and Cliff Mass’s blog post from March 3rd.

This theme emerging in media in reaction to Dr. Jaffe’s research is what we wanted to explore in more detail.


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