Train begins to clear air
D&SNGRR implements measures to curb emissions

The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge train prepares to leave the downtown depot on Tuesday morning. As part of its $1 million pledge to clean up emissions over the next five years, the train will be using wood pellets to stoke the engines overnight and will build another ash pit in Silverton for depositing spent coal ash /Photo by David Halterman

by Missy Votel

Making good on its pledge to reduce train smoke, the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad will be implementing two changes to operations this summer. For starters, the acrid pall of nighttime coal smoke over Durango’s southside will be replaced with a more appetizing option. As part of last January’s $1 million pledge to alleviate emissions over the next five years, the train will switch to wood pellets for its overnight firing needs.

“Instead of sulfur dioxide, we’ll presumably be enjoying somebody’s hickory barbeque,” said Jerry Swingle, longtime southside resident and member of the Train Smoke Task Force.

In addition to the use of the pellets, the railroad also will be incorporating the use of another ash pit in Silverton. Currently, all the spent coal ash is dumped in Durango. However, with a second pit in Silverton, spent cinders could be dumped before the train’s return trip, thus lessening impacts in Durango. “The locomotives have their fires cleaned at night and in the morning,” said Paul Schranck, D&SNG general manger and vice president for operations. “If they are cleaned in Silverton, then they won’t have to be cleaned at night in Durango.”

The Train Smoke Task Force, made up of train and government officials and citizens, was formed a year ago to examine solutions to the ongoing problem of smoke settling over Durango’s south neighborhoods. In addition to a test run last summer of the wood pellets – actually small, compact logs made from construction waste – the group also hired a consultant to study other smoke-mitigation measures. The consultants, Wasatch Railroad Contractors, of Cheyenne, Wyo., released a 130-page feasibility report last October. The report detailed several options for mitigating smoke, and the ash pit was one.

According to Wasatch, the smoldering ash pit self-combusts over time, emitting as much, if not more, smoke than an idling locomotive.

Schranck said he did not have a firm date for the completion of the ash pit in Silverton, but said the train is working with the town of Silverton as well as San Juan Basin Health Department on the issues of drainage and other potential health impacts. “We haven’t had any negative response so far,” he said.

“Representatives from San Juan Basin Health met with our staff, and they were confident it should work.”

On the other hand, Schranck said the wood pellets should be in use by mid-May. “Summer is a goal, depending on success,” he said. “Hopefully, we’ll have great success. We did use them last summer, so we know they work.”

Right now, the train is working on building a pole barn to house the pellets, which are extremely susceptible to moisture. The pellets will be used overnight instead of coal to keep the engines warm, a method referred to as “hot standby.” In the summer of 2005, the train’s hot standby method was pinpointed as the main culprit of overnight pollution.

“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.

The new pellets produce one-tenth the amount of ash of coal: .8 percent versus between 7 and 8 percent for coal. “That’s a lot less for the scrubbers to clean,” said Swingle.

On the topic of scrubbers, Swingle said the Task Force is still working on ways to improve the train’s scrubber system in the future, such as adding more scrubbers, installing “snorkel extensions” between the locomotive stacks and the scrubbers, and adding a scrubber over the ash pit. “The point is to catch more smoke as it comes out of the stacks,” he said.

The Task Force is also still exploring the possibility of implementing some of Wasatch’s proposed fixes as well. According to Swingle, most of those suggestions were mechanical in nature, aimed at improving the trains’ combustion systems. Inefficient or incomplete combustion methods can lead to excessive emissions, he said. “As coal burns, it gives off gases because of not having enough air circulating,” he said.

To that end, the train is working with Minneapolis engineer Ron Kegel, who contributed to the Wasatch report, on coming up with a design to inject heated, fresh air into the firebox. Swingle, said the device, which would be similar to a catalytic converter in a car, would be a more cost-effective option than the front-end modifications recommended in the report. “It would cost about one-tenth of that or less, between $300,000 and $350,000 per locomotive,” he said.

The train will resume its runs to Silverton starting May 5. •

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