By train or by ship, coal causes trouble

The aftermath of the coal train derailment in Vivian, Louisiana. Photo: Caddo Parish Sheriff’s Office

Bob Burton

The derailment of 30 coal wagons on the banks of the Clark Fork River in Montana is just the latest in a long list of coal transport accidents which highlight the risks from shipping fossil fuels long distances to markets.

While the exact amount of coal which ended up in the river is unclear, a photo featured in media articles reveals a coal wagon partly in the river and trails of coal right to the river’s edge. Montana Rail Link says it may be several weeks before the accident site is fully cleaned up.

While this is just one accident, there have been plenty more over the last month.

In late July, 30 coal wagons in a Kansas City Southern train derailed in Vivian spilling coal onto Louisiana Highway 1, forcing the road to be closed while it could be cleaned up. Some residents were also warned to boil water before consuming it after the train damaged local water infrastructure.

A few days earlier, 21 cars in a 150-wagon coal train derailed in San Antonio in Texas, spilling some of their contents. A Union Pacific spokesman suggested that heatwave conditions may have caused the rail line to buckle, triggering the derailment.

A little over a week earlier, 27 cars in a Union Pacific coal train derailed in Okay, Oklahoma, spilling coal onto the railway and tearing up over 450 metres of track. A few days earlier, 20 coal wagons in a 145-car train derailed in West Allis, Wisconsin.

Nor are coal train derailments a purely US phenomena.

In Queensland, Australia 21 coal wagons in a 41 car train – along with two locomotives – derailed near a level crossing. Police was suspected that a low-loader truck may have damaged the railway.

While each of these accidents caused relatively minor damage compared to coal ash dam collapses or mine fires, they illustrate the inherent risks of transporting fossil fuels long distances to power stations and other consumers.

Coal transport accidents extend way beyond railways too.

With about 1 billion tonnes of coal transported across oceans in bulk freighters and more down rivers and between ports, shipping accidents are all too common.

In mid-July, a coal ship in the Fox River in Green Bay, Wisconsin crushed and sank a moored boat before hitting a major bridge and putting it out of action for four hours. Luckily, the boat was unoccupied and no one was injured.

Last month a barge with over 1000 tonnes of coal on its way from Ha Long City sank in the Chanh River in Vietnam.

A little over a week earlier a ship carrying 4700 tonnes of coal sank after storm hit Nghe An province, also in Vietnam. Of the 13 crew, seven were rescued, four died and two remain missing.

In Indonesia, a coal barge had to return to port after its cargo caught fire. A report in the local media showed dockside fire tenders pouring water onto the smouldering piles of coal in the barge.

In Australia, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) detained the Bahamas-registered MV Rena after a complaint its crew had not been paid. A safety inspection while the ship was moored at the Hay Point Coal terminal in Queensland revealed the ship’s emergency generator didn’t work, there were problems with the life boats and other failings in its safety management.

After the crew were paid over US$41,000 in outstanding wages and repairs were made, AMSA announced the ship would be banned from Australian waters for six months, bluntly stating “the behaviour of the ship’s owners gave AMSA considerable cause for concern.”

However, the ship set sail and is currently on the high seas – with a load of Australian coal – destined for India via Singapore.

This week the Liberian-flagged Clia, with over 80,000 tonnes of coal on board, ran aground near Kaohsiung in Taiwan. Despite the assistance of a tug, the ship still remains stuck after 24 hours.

Coal transport accidents may be far more frequent than commonly considered, if the spate of accidents reported in the English-language media over the last month is anything to go by.

The frequency of coal ship and train accidents not only highlights an addition risk with coal but that another benefit of solar and wind power is that the fuel is delivered without any risk of environmental harm.

Bob Burton is the Editor of CoalWire, a weekly bulletin on global coal industry developments. (You can sign up for it here.) His Twitter feed is here.