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Originally published May 9, 2013 at 5:26 PM | Page modified May 9, 2013 at 8:29 PM

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UW chemist’s coal project gets crowdfunded — in record time

A UW chemist wanted to do air-quality monitoring on the health effects of coal trains, but couldn’t get the funding. Until he asked you.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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One thing we now know, if we didn’t already: Coal is hot.

A UW professor’s campaign to see if the public would finance his air-quality research on coal trains has been answered in record time — with a resounding yes.

Atmospheric chemist Dan Jaffe’s proposal to monitor the trains reached its $18,000 “crowdfunding” goal Thursday, one day after a Seattle Times column about him and only a week after he first put up a request at science fundraising site Microryza.

“We have never seen a science project funded this fast,” said Microryza’s co-founder, Cindy Wu. “It happens for things like the Veronica Mars movie, or Zach Braff. But science is normally thought of as too esoteric to attract broad public interest. This is very exciting to us.”

It’s also a sign of how potent the coal trains have become as an environmental issue around here. The industry proposal, one of several, is to build a coal-shipping terminal near Bellingham, potentially tripling the number of loaded coal trains passing through Seattle.

As of Thursday afternoon, more than 230 people had donated an average of $77 each to Jaffe’s project, which is titled “Do coal and diesel trains make for unhealthy air?”

Jaffe said he was bowled over by the people power.

“I was going to give up and not do this research,” he said, referring to how he had difficulty getting funding for it through typical channels. “It’s a brave new world.”

Jaffe plans to set up air monitors along the tracks, possibly north of Seattle, starting in July. The goal is to see if trains affect air quality, to help inform how building a new coal terminal might affect people up and down the tracks.

Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or

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About Danny Westneat

Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to His column runs Wednesday and Sunday. | 206-464-2086

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