Monday, August 22, 2011

Coke trains

On a recent kayak paddle in Bellingham Bay, I heard the increasingly loud, ear piercing train whistle blasts issued by a heavy freight train, heading north from the Larabee State Park railroad crossing, south of Bellingham, Washington. A short time later, the freight train passed by, and I continued paddling south along the shoreline.

I've lived in Bellingham since 1977, and I've been blissfully ignorant of trains until recently. The proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal has raised my awareness of trains, and everyone else's too, it seems. But on this day, I observed what appeared to be a heavily loaded, open box freight train from the water - for the first time. The train was dirty, heavy, and loud, and the load, which looked like coal, was piled so high that I could see it from my cockpit, well below the train. The train passed by, and I didn't think about it until the end of the day, when I returned to my launch site, which is next to a train crossing.

While we pulled the kayaks out of the water I noticed a person walking down the tracks, stooping down occasionally, and dropping what looked like rocks into a sack. Always curious about what happens next to water, I asked the person what he was finding. He showed me this. It looked like coal infused with air bubbles. He told me that each time one of these trains goes by, he collects these chunks, and burns them in his woodstove for heat. I looked around the road crossing, and picked up some chunks, which left black stains on my hands. I brought them home, called a geologist friend, and rode my bike to his house with my findings. We looked at them with a hand lens. He pronounced them petroleum coke, and then I went on a long vacation.

Petroleum coke is the product of a coker unit in a crude oil refinery. The U.S. is the largest producer of coke in the world. In Whatcom and Skagit counties, we have four refineries. According to the website of one of them, Shell Puget Sound, Shell produces 1,250 tons of coke per day, and ships it via rail cars, trucks, and marine barges. Are the other three refineries making this much too? I have no idea. What's it used for? Coke is used to make anodes for the aluminum, steel, and titanium smelting industry, and it's used in the cement industry, and as fuel for boilers. It's used locally, at Alcoa Intalco Aluminum smelter.

Except for this bag of coke which I've kept in my office, I didn't see coke again until last week.
On a visit to Anacortes, I noticed dozens of gigantic dump trucks making continuous trips through town, and down to the shipping port. I followed one of the trucks from the Shell Refinery to the port, where the trucks were efficiently dumping their loads onto a covered conveyor belt system, which carried to load into the hold of a large ship, pictured here. This coke is likely going to the Alcan aluminum smelter in Kitimat, British Columbia - a journey of 1,520 miles, and most of this distance is along the water, or very close to it.

Coke trains have been going by for at least 40 years, maybe 50. I don't know how much coke is on the train tracks, if it's getting spilled from the barges, or if it's causing water quality problems. Is coal on the tracks too? I have no idea. Meanwhile, my awareness of freight trains heightens each day - with five loud blasts at each road crossing, I can envision where the trains are, what direction they're moving, day and night. I'm going to keep looking around every time I ride my bike over the train tracks. Thanks for reading!

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