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KUOW's environment beat brings you stories on the ongoing cleanup of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, alternative energy, the health of the Puget Sound, coal transportation and more. We're also partnered with several stations across the Northwest to bring you environmental news via EarthFix.

Crowdfunding Coal Science In Pacific Northwest

Katie Campbell

Crowdfunding campaigns are popular ways to raise money for fledgling businesses and independent projects — and now scientific research. As state and federal agencies begin the environmental review process for the largest coal export terminals on the West Coast, some scientists are turning to the public for help with research of their own.

Dan Jaffe is one of them. He’s a professor of atmospheric and environmental science at the University of Washington in Bothell. He wants to figure out how much coal dust escapes from trains. Jaffe’s scientific inquiry has brought him to a pedestrian footbridge north of Seattle, where he’s looking down at the train tracks that run along Richmond Beach.

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“All trains are going to be emitting diesel particulate,” Jaffe says. “The next question is whether trains carrying coal are going to also be emitting things like coal dust.”

Jaffe and a student sampled the air over these tracks last summer as trains passed by and found an increase in larger particles after coal trains came through.

He says his results are preliminary, but when he went to the US Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Ecology they said they couldn’t pay for his research.

So, he created an online profile with Microryza, a crowdfunding website.

“Crowdfunding is an approach where you go to the people, you go to the citizens of the United States and say, ‘Hey, we’re not getting enough funding for scientific research in this country but here’s an idea and I think it’s a good and important idea,’” Jaffe said. “You throw it out there and if you can convince other people that it’s an important idea then they will fund it.”

Within days Jaffe had met and surpassed his target. He raised $20,000 to pay for a monitoring station to be put up along these tracks. It will gather real-time data and video so he can study the emissions of specific types of trains and try to get an answer to the coal dust question. He plans to share all the data with the public for independent analysis.

Read the whole story on KUOW's Earthfix