Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Coal Dust is Complicated but Real Problem

At the City Club presentation one of SSA Marine’s hired guns challenged me on the coal dust issue.  His challenge to me was basically that if I were to find that the Northwest Clean Air Agency (please see New Business section of Board minutes) had never had a complaint about coal dust, would I stop my “rhetoric” about the problems with coal dust?  The simple answer is: No, of course not.  The challenge was clever on a certain level, but disingenuous because of the nature of coal dust and how and where it has an impact.   Coal dust—in this context—is more of a water quality issue than an air quality issue (please see Seward, Alaska). 

Coal dust is a complicated issue that impacts different systems in different ways at different levels and at different times.  For instance, coal dust is considered a toxic substance by multiple agencies and organizations when inhaled by humans.  Most people are familiar with “black lung disease” that afflicts coal miners and residents in coal towns.  But these effects require large amounts of dust in a confined space over a long period of time.  RE Sources has never mentioned black lung disease as a possible public impact of the Cherry Point coal terminal project. 

Coal dust in the context of this Cherry Point project is a problem 1) near the mines where it spews from open rails cars in a visible dust cloud; 2) when the trains are traveling at-speed or when vortices are created by other trains, man-made surfaces, or geological formations; and 3) when it is unloaded from trains, manipulated, and loaded on ships at the terminal.  That is not to say that fugitive coal dust is benign or absent at other stages in its journey from the mine to furnace to atmosphere, but these are the most important and most impactful.

Coal dust around the mines and in the first stages of transport is expelled at a monumental rate.  That means that coal dust piles up along rail lines and coats the landscape for hundreds of miles from the mines.  BNSF is currently in litigation with energy companies and mine operators over the dust issue as it fouls rail line ballast—the rocks placed around the rails and ties to allow proper drainage—and is thought by some to contribute eventually to derailments.  This region will not experience this phenomenon, but it is one of the broader impacts of this proposed project and should be considered in a responsible analysis of impacts.

Coal dust lifting off of moving trains has been studied in the US, Canada, and Australia with similar results.  Work cited in an Australian study, for instance, indicated that dust loss was very wind speed dependent with coal dust being expelled at wind speeds as low as 20 kilometers per hour (13.4 mph) and increasing nearly exponentially as speed of wind across load increases (i.e., dust loss doubles between 25 mph and 40 mph and triples between 25mph and 50 mph).  The same paper cited studies that indicated that dust increased when trains passed each other and when trains traveled through tunnels or along cliff faces; in other words any conditions that caused wind vortices. 

Photo Credit Paul K. Anderson, Chuckanut Conservancy
 Dust expelled during transit at cross load wind speeds in excess of 20 kilometers per hour is deposited near the tracks.  And while it likely causes little in the way of human impacts and is often difficult to detect, the dust impacts vegetative growth cycles and the diversity of plants, changes soil chemistry, and washes into waterways where it can physiological and genetic impacts on species such as salmon.  The level of damage to plants, soil, and water is dependent on the amount of dust and its chemical composition.  Coal dust around the Lambert’s Point Coal Terminal, for instance, has added detectable amounts of arsenic to the soils around the terminal.  In any case, coal dust in waterways tends to remove oxygen from the water column and that is not good for wetlands or aquatic creatures. 

Fugitive coal dust expelled at locales more than 100 miles from the mines is frequently discounted by terminal project proponents, but the phenomenon is very real to the folks who experience it.  Although it is mostly characterized as a nuisance rather than a human health issue, people’s lives are changed by it.  Organic gardens are fouled, pools and outdoor spaces are speckled with dust, and boats and marinas are blackened on decks and at the waterline. 

Coal terminals and other facilities that move or handle coal around the world face complaints about coal dust from Australia to India and from Seward, Alaska to Mobile, Alabama.  That also goes for those closer to home as well like Robert’s Bank near Vancouver, BC and Ridley Terminal near Prince Rupert in the same province.  Even when the facilities are doing all that they can to reduce dust, the sheer mechanics of handling or moving millions of metric tons of coal creates dust that even the most sophisticated dust control systems can only reduce but not control completely.  The areas in and around coal terminals, storage facilities, and coal fired power plants suffer as a result and as a result people react to the prospect of coal terminals again, and again, and again.
McDuffie Terminal in Mobile, AL - Currently the largest facility of its kind in North America

Cherry Point project proponents would love to discount and cloud this issue.  They claim that their facility will deal with dust in a manner that is better than all other facilities in the world.  But when asked about how they will accomplish that monumental feat while moving more materials through the same operational footprint, they are a little short on details and proven methodologies.  They simply ask us to trust them and that is just not good enough.

--Bob Ferris
RE Sources' Executive Director


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