Collaborating on coal smoke
Train task force continues to make strides

SideStory: Air Quality Control Commission to take public comment

Two mechanics with the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad work on a locomotive last week. The train began implementing smoke-mitigation measures this summer, such as increasing maintenance on the engines and  hiring an addiitonal night watchman to share overnight engine-stoking duties. So far, community residents and members of the newly formed Train Smoke Task Force say the steps are working./Photo by Jared Boyd.

by Missy Votel

As the Durango & Silverton Railroad’s season winds down, the general consensus is that smoke over Durango’s south side improved over the summer. However, the state agency that develops air pollution policy and regulates pollution sources wants to make sure that collaboration between the train and community stays on track.

“Our goal is to ensure that the efforts that seem to be working continue to work,” said Doug Lempke, administrator with the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission. The nine-member advisory group, an arm of the Colorado Department of Public Heath and Environment, will be holding its monthly meeting in Durango on Oct. 19, at which time it will hear a report on smoke-mitigation feasibility and take public comment on the train’s smoke.

Lempke said the commission became involved with the long-running dispute over excessive smoke last May at the request of the recently formed Train Smoke Task Force. The consortium of train and public officials and community members formed last winter in an effort to find solutions to the smoke problem. Starting last spring, Lempke and a fellow commissioner from Grand Junction have attended monthly meetings of the Task Force.

“I’ve been to a few meetings and hope to stay involved,” said Lempke.

Since the Task Force formed last winter, the train has implemented several mitigation measures, including: using diesel locomotives to switch trains in the yard; hiring an additional night watchman to help with firing the engines; using a cleaner-burning coal; and increasing employee training and maintenance of engines.

“We’ve done a lot,” said Paul Schranck, general manager for the railroad. “The coal mine’s done a better job getting better coal; we’ve hired more staff to ensure a more consistent firing technique; we’ve done more training; and the locomotive boilers have been worked on. We’ve put forth a big effort.”

Furthermore, the train also is exploring alternate fuel sources. Recently, the train completed a test using compressed wood pellets to fuel the engines overnight. While Schranck said results were promising, there are glitches that would need to be worked out before such a thing could be used on a regular basis. “The problem with pressed wood is that it is extremely susceptible to moisture, and with the wet weather we’ve been having, they go right to sawdust,” he said. “Before we can use them, we would need a better handling system.”

He also noted that there are no guarantees that such a system would burn cleaner than the current coal-fired method. “We don’t know what the emissions are with the pellets,” he said.

In an effort to further track emissions, the train also has posted an online forum where residents can report on emissions:

The efforts are not going unnoticed by south Durango residents, who became particularly vocal on the topic of train smoke after the summer of 2005.

“It seems to me to be better, and I think we have to attribute some of that to the train,” said Jerry Swingle, a resident of East Fifth Avenue and co-chair of the Task Force.

During the summer of 2005, the train came under attack for its method of keeping the trains stoked overnight, referred to as “hot standby.”

“What was happening was, the night watchman was shoveling a whole lot of coal into the firebox, overfueling it to the point that they were burning poorly and spitting out a horrendous amount of smoke,” said Swingle.

Fellow Task Force member and south side resident Sarah Wright said the smoke near her home at First Street and Sixth Avenue seemed better as well over the past months.

“It was definitely better this summer,” she said.

However, both agree that this summer’s measures are just a step in the right direction. To that end, the Task Force secured $40,000 in funds from the train, city and county along with a matching grant from Region 9 Economic Development District to study further mitigation measures. Wasatch Railroad Contractors, a company that specializes in antique and coal-fired trains out of Cheyenne, Wyo., was hired this summer to perform the study. Representatives visited Durango in late August to compile data and tour the train facility. The results of the study, along with 30 or so mitigation suggestions, will be released at next Thursday’s Air Quality Control Commission meeting.

“When the train is busy, you can see a plume of smoke coming right out of the scrubber, hopefully that will be part of the fix Wasatch recommends,” said Swingle.

In fact, adding additional scrubbers is an idea that has been pitched in past meetings of the Task Force. However, such a fix does not come cheap, particularly for the train, which professes to operate on a slim margin. The current scrubber system, which has reduced particle emissions by 30 percent to 40 percent, came at a cost of $400,000. But Lempke said that is where he may be able to help.

“There certainly are other opportunities for funding, like grants, that may not come from the state, but that people who work for the state can help find,” he said. “There are a lot of possibilities to bring money to bear.”

But Lempke as well as members of the Task Force note that a lot has to happen before that can take place.

“The train’s great and they’re working with us, but we’ve still got a long way to go to get this thing cleaned up. We don’t want another summer like last year” said Wright. As such, she and Swingle said it is of utmost importance for residents to show up and speak their mind at Thursday’s comment period.

“(Commission members) are not likely to get a good, firsthand feel for what it is like here midsummer,” said Swingle. “They absolutely need to hear from local folks who have experienced problems and how it has affected them.”

They also noted that there is still disagreement over whether or not the train is exempt from Clean Air Act regulations or any more stringent, state-mandated pollution standards. Last year, the director of the air quality division for the State Department of Health and Environment, Margie Perkins, ruled that the train was not exempt as was previously thought. However, Rep. Mark Larson, R-Cortez, and Sen. Jim Isgar, D-Hesperus, put language into a bill that would exempt the train. Although the bill passed, it was later vetoed by Gov. Bill Owens last spring.

Since then, Lempke said the train and the state have “agreed to disagree” on the subject of exemption and move forward.

“The current process seems to be working and everyone is happy with the direction the Task Force is taking. If the community and train are working to put solutions on the table, then that’s progress, and that’s good,” he said. “It is our hope to stay focused on that and not have to pursue less amicable paths.” •



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