Coming in to 2020, 140 years after its construction, we must ask: how long should this once useful piece of technology continue to run on an outdated fuel source – coal? It has its fans for sure, and its importance to Durango’s origin is undeniable. But as its utility has waned and environmental cost remains, when does the cost outweigh the nostalgic benefit?
Many Durangoans live in the plume of the train’s nightly coal burning, and they’ll tell you, it isn’t fun. It has been a challenge for South Siders to get anyone to listen because in the past, and most other residents aren’t aware that the Train burns all night long, resulting in serious nighttime air pollution that’s worse than Beijing’s. The City Council and Chamber of Commerce have always asserted that the train is a big part of the Durango’s local economy, when in fact it’s about $20 Million per year. In a $5 Billion per year GDP that is 0.4% of the La Plata County GDP. Looking at the surrounding 4 counties – San Juan County (NM), Montezuma, Archuleta & San Juan County (CO) – the regional GDP is over $10Billion, which lessens the Train’s economic impact even more.
With the recent 419 wildfire, public opinion is beginning to sway as it is clearly not just those on the south side of Durango being affected. The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad started the 2018 wildfire, according to a federal investigation. Additionally, as many as 50 fires were started by the train in the spring of 2018, according to U.S. Judge N. Reid Neureiter.
“Neureiter says according to the reports there were four dozen fires leading up to the 416, some which grew to 150 ft to 200 ft. Neureiter believes Durango & Silverton was aware of the risk leading up to the 416 Fire and also was aware they were operating in increasingly severe drought conditions.” ~RT&S.com
The fire risk is a strong concern and has caused the US Forest Service and local Durango citizens to file lawsuits against the railroad. But local fires aren’t the only affect on the local environment. There is also the issue of noise pollution. It should surprise no one that trains are loud. Specifically, the Durango Train blasts its 120 decibel horn as it lumbers through downtown, warning pedestrians and vehicles of it’s approach. According to the CDC,
“Noise above 70 dB over a prolonged period of time may start to damage your hearing. Loud noise above 120 dB can cause immediate harm to your ears.”
The train also consumes 6 tons of coal and 10,000 gallons of water to power the trip. In an era of growing concern over man caused climate change, blasting 6 tons of burnt coal emissions into the clean mountain air of Southwest Colorado seems to have gone unnoticed. Is this environmental cost okay with Durango citizens as long as it supports the local economy? Most would probably tell you no if you asked them, but then it’s not up to the individual. The trend up to this point seems to let the City Council worry about the economics of it and not think about it too much.
The EPA considers PM10 levels over 60ppm to be the limit past which people will start to see negative health effects. The Durango Train’s smoke at night is often over 300ppm, making it some of the worst nighttime air quality in the country. You can see live air quality data for Durango on this Durango Downtown page.