Coal Dust on the Loose

coal transfer
Coal trains offload Usibelli coal at the left side of the black coal mound. Stockpiled coal
gets loaded onto the light blue conveyor system that extends to the right and deposited
on transport ships headed for Korea.

For years, the Alaska Railroad (ARR) has shipped coal from the Usibelli coal mine near Healy to Seward for export to Korea. The terminal at Seward offloads the coal and stores it in long mounds near a conveyor system that moves the coal to a large transport ship.

The presence of this industry brings jobs to Seward which are always in demand. It also brings with it some deleterious health effects.

Coal dust contains particulates that significantly contributes to asthma and other respiratory ailments. Plus coal contains mercury and lead, extremely potent neurotoxins and one of the reasons that coal combustion is under worldwide scrutiny.

Coal dust becomes a problem when the wind blows which is a frequent occurrence in Seward, especially in the winter when Interior high pressure weather systems force a strong cold north wind into town. The coal pile is situated upwind from the Seward small boat harbor and residences and downtown business district.

Many boat owners have complained for years about the deposit of grimy coal dust on every surface of their boats moored in the harbor. The dust also works its way into homes by slipping through poorly sealed window and door openings.

Any boat owner in the Seward Small Boat Harbor can tell you about how messy coal can be

In the spring of 2007, one of the ARR coal trains arrived in Seward and began offloading its cargo onto the coal storage mounds during a high north wind. A significant emission of dust rose and dramatically emphasized the negative impact. The size of the widespread dense cloud exceeded anything local residents had previously seen. It also exceeded air quality standards of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC).

To address the concern, a task force composed of ARR representatives, the terminal facility owners, the city, DEC, RBCA, boat owners and local scientists was created. In brief, the task force’s recommendation was simple: contain the fugitive dust. The ARR committed to make substantive changes to the off-loading and storage procedures.

Over the summer of 2007, some changes that the ARR made reduced but did not eliminate the number of fugitive dust cloud occurrences. The failure to contain two the fugitive dust cloud emissions earned the ARR two air quality violations issued by the DEC. 

On May 8, the task force met again. The ARR presented in detail the operations at the coal facility highlighting places where dust can escape and the railroad's attempt to constrict those places. They also described water spraying techniques. While positive changes have occurred, dust still escapes and coats boats and sifts into window sills. At the request of some task force members, the ARR may do an economic study of it's role in Seward's economy and, to address claims that some of the dust is greywacke (the dominant local rock), may assess the composition (among other things) of the dust accumulations.

The citizens of Seward and particularly members of RBCA, continue to monitor the coal dust emissions and provide significant and effective photo and written documentation to the DEC.

Uncontained coal dust contains unhealthy particulates, mercury and lead.

Coal dust accumulates all winter and is most evident in the spring.
Screen shot 2009-11-06 at 11.37.45 AMScreen shot 2009-11-06 at 11.38.38 AM

On January 8, 2010, the Sierra Club and the Alaska Community Action on Toxics (ACAT) filed suit against the Alaska Railroad and Aurora Energy alleging violations of the Clean Water Act.

RBCA is not involved in the lawsuit.

The Alaskan political blog The
Mudflats ran a story with interesting comments. Worth a look.

The Juneau Empire ran a
story too. So did the Seward Phoenix Log.