Coal dust worries across the border spark new studies by municipalities

Published on Wed, Apr 24, 2013 by Brandy Kiger Shreve

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A major concern of residents opposed to the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal/Custer Spur project is the potential impact on their health and the environment.

It turns out there is precious little hard data on the subject. Neither the Environmental Protection Agency, the Army Corps of Engineers or the Washington Port Association had any studies directly related to coal dust emissions in the Pacific Northwest. 

“The problem is that we’re still in the asking phase of this process,” said Katie Skipper, communications director for the Northwest Clean Air Agency (NWCAA). “We’re still asking the co-lead agencies for the project to provide the studies and reports that we need to make the best decisions for the permitting process.”

Across the border, it’s another story.


The municipality of Delta is starting to take a hard look at the potential health hazards posed by coal transport. In March, 
Delta’s council voted to start monitoring coal dust from the Westshore Terminals coal facility at Roberts Bank. “The work that we will be doing is something relatively new,” said Mike Brotherston, manager of Climate Action and Environment for the municipality. “We decided it was necessary because of ongoing concerns from the public.” 

“We need to have more data to say definitively whether or not coal dust is making its way into the community,” Brotherston added.

According to a staff report presented to the council, residents from Tsawwassen, B.C. and Point Roberts have complained for years about the black particulates which they say are deposited on their homes, decks and boats, despite suppression methods used by the terminal. “The municipality is planning to do tests for coal dust,” said Denis Horgan, vice president and general manager for Westshore Terminals. “We’re glad that they are doing it. There’s a lot of misinformation out there about coal, and any time anyone sees anything black, they think it has to be coal dust.”

Horgan said they receive several complaints a year from residents about coal dust and that they test each complaint for particulate matter. “We spend around $1,400 each time to take the sample to a lab and look at it under an electron microscope,” he said. “But, generally speaking, it’s not coal.”

Any number of things can be the cause of the fine black particulates found in the area, he said, but it can’t be known what it is until it is under the microscope. A 2001 study of coal dust emissions found that Westshore Terminals emitted roughly 715 tons of coal dust per year. The facility was upgraded in 2006, and a more recent coal emission estimate in 2010 was 177 tons. A separate study conducted by researchers at the University of British Columbia found that the concentrations of coal dust in sediments around Westshore Terminals had doubled over a 22-year period. 

Last year, in what Horgan deemed a “freak” incident, a sudden windstorm stirred up dust over the containment area, causing alarm for nearby residents. “I wouldn’t say it’s a regular occurrence, but they were definitely caught off-guard,” Brotherston said. “It came out of nowhere, and there was a fair bit of material escaping the site, so it was definitely a cause for concern.” 

Coal dust contains a variety of heavy metals, including lead, mercury and arsenic, and is a human health and environmental concern. Exposure can cause and/or aggravate a wide range of respiratory conditions and coal can accumulate in soil, sediment, water and plants.

Horgan said that the company does everything it can to minimize coal dust and comply with environmental standards. “We do testing [on the sediment levels] every month,” he said. “We contain the dust well within our site and if, say, in winter when we have torrential downpours and we can’t contain it all, we treat it before we discharge it into the ocean.”  

He said that even though they have been shipping coal for years and spraying water to control the dust, the terminal has taken measures in recent years to ensure that the dust stays put. “We are ripping out our current system and replacing it with a more comprehensive system to better control the dust,” he said. 

Craig Cole, a GPT advocate, said coal dust will not be a problem with the Cherry Point terminal, even though it will be nearly as large as the Westshore Terminals facility. 

“It can’t be a problem,” he said. “The regulations require that there be no emissions or particulates leaving the boundary or property that will create a nuisance.” 

“It’s completely different (than other terminals) in terms of its characteristics,” he said. “It’s a very large site, and only about one third will be developed. The rest of the terminal is going to remain a natural buffer and product storage will be half a mile from the water.” 

He added that dust would be minimized by a combination of sprayers, flow controlled chutes and berms. Any movement of the coal from the storage site would be in covered or enclosed conveyors. “The systems are more modern and environmentally protective,” he said. “The coal will be contained from the time it leaves storage until it is in the hold of the ship.”

But dust from the terminal is not the only thing that’s got Whatcom residents worried. It’s also the potential for coal dust being released as it passes through the community on open railway cars. It’s an issue that the Delta staff report addressed as well.

“Of additional concern is the release of coal dust from rail cars transporting coal to the terminal. Local observations suggest that mitigation measures implemented at the time of loading in Montana, Wyoming and Alberta are no longer effective by the time the trains arrive in Delta,” the report states.

Brotherston said that dust has been a concern for residents, particularly in the agricultural areas. “It was an issue raised by a councilor who lives in the agricultural area,” he said. “We’ve had quite a lot of public concern about dusting from rail cars – they’ve observed visible dusting from time to time. But it’s been less frequent since they began spraying the cars a second time.”

Cole argues that there will be no impacts from the increased number of trains transiting the area. “Of all the things to worry about in life, I’d put coal dust pretty far down the list. It’s a non-issue,” he said. “The railroad is the enemy of coal dust. It creates maintenance problems if they don’t control it.” 

Courtney Wallace, BNSF spokesperson, agreed. “We’ve been hauling coal through Washington into Canada for decades,” she said. “In 2005 we started seeing an issue with coal dust at the loading site in the Powder River Basin, so we developed coal dust mitigation techniques to deal with it. In 2011, we began requiring our shippers to apply those techniques.”


Wallace said coal dust damages the tracks and requires more maintenance for the railway, ultimately costing the company more money. “It can be a real problem,” she said. “We were really on the forefront of looking at coal dust and its impacts because of those issues.”

Cole clarified. “When coal dust gets wet, it hardens like cement,” he said. “It causes major buildup on the tracks. BNSF doesn’t want dust on their tracks.”

Wallace said all shippers on the BNSF line must follow a combination of procedures to ensure the least amount of coal dust emission possible. “They have to use a surfactant (a glue-like substance that is sprayed over the car), and load the coal to contour it and make it less susceptible to losses,” she said. 

Despite what the coal interests say, Brotherston said residents across the border are still skeptical. “It has been proposed that railways should make a commitment to monitor dust levels along the track,” Brotherston said. “And if the suppression measures aren’t sufficient, then the railway should add more spray stations, to help control it.”

Skipper said that her agency is responsible for protecting and improving the overall quality of the air in their jurisdiction. “We’ve submitted our comments for the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) process and we’re asking them to look at anything that could affect the air quality in this area,” she said. 

The agency has asked the co-lead agencies to consider such impacts as windblown dust from the coal terminal, emissions from burning coal piles, emissions from trains serving the terminals along their routes, and emissions from ships, trains and any commodity the facility might handle. 

Currently, comments gathered during the EIS process are being reviewed to help determine the scope of the Cherry Point Terminal EIS. The EIS analysis will include a review of the environmental impacts, including human health effects related to the construction and operation of the Gateway Pacific Terminal facilities and modifications to the BNSF Custer spur.  

The analysis will also provide an assessment of whether measures can be taken to avoid or minimize those environmental impacts. “When they deliver the draft environmental impact statement, we’ll be looking closely at that,” Skipper said. “We’re looking at anything that could affect air quality if the terminal is built.”