DALLESPORT, Wash. -- An environmental group is shining a spotlight on just how much damage it says coal trains are causing as they roll through the Columbia River Gorge.
Currently no more than four coal trains pass through the gorge every day, and blankets of what looks like coal are lining the areas around the tracks. It has been moving down the banks and into the Columbia River, according to Brett VandenHuevel, executive director of Columbia Riverkeeper.
He said the group's tests have revealed that it is coal lining the tracks and vicinity.
"This really hasn't been disclosed on the Columbia yet, and we don't know how many years this has been happening," VandenHuevel said. "Not only is it going into our rivers; these same trains are going through our communities, passing our schools."
The coal industry is working to bring five export terminals to Oregon and Washington, which would help ship coal from Wyoming and Montana to Asia. That would mean more than a dozen extra coal trains passing through the gorge, carrying 140 million tons more coal every year.
People who live near the rail line said they're worried about the collateral damage.
"This stuff breaks down into powder really easily," said Don McDermott, who has a vineyard in Murdoch. "I'm really concerned about the coal dust getting onto my grapes."
But supporters of the coal terminals said the issue is being blown out of proportion.
"We don't consider coal dust an issue here," said Laurie Hennessey of the Alliance for Northwest Jobs and Exports. "We think it's something that's been exaggerated because people are fearful and lacking information."
Proponents have also said any additional trains will be treated to prevent coal loss. They add that proposed coal projects would bring thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in tax revenue to the region.
The coal industry will be looking into Columbia Riverkeeper's findings. Regulatory agencies will also conduct new testing if the projects move forward.