One of the primary objections to coal export terminals, at least among people who live near them, is the spread of coal dust. Coal is typically stored in large piles at export terminals, and these piles often generate significant quantities of coal dust when it’s windy or when the coal is disturbed or moved during the loading and unloading process. As one study put it, “coal terminals by their nature are active sources of fugitive dust.”*

Coal dust is, at minimum a nuisance; it’s probably a threat to water quality; and it’s possibly a danger to families’ health. In coal workers who are exposed to dust, for example, coal dust has been shown to cause bronchitis, emphysema, and black lung disease.

Here’s a look at how coal dust from terminals affects communities in North America.

In Seward, Alaska, an active lawsuit submits that coal dust blowing off the terminal’s stockpiles covers nearby fishing boats and neighborhoods with debris. It also argues that the conveyor system used to load ships and other export site operations drop coal dust directly into the local bay, violating the Clean Water Act. In 2010, the state of Alaska fined the railroad company that delivers the coal to the terminal $220,000 for failing to adequately control dust that dirtied Seward’s scenic harbor.

The Westshore coal export terminal at Robert’s Bank, just south of Vancouver, British Columbia, handles about 21 million tons annually. It unloads nearly 600 rail cars of coal each day on a peninsula jutting into the Strait of Georgia. Some residents of Point Roberts, a beachfront community three miles away from the export terminal, complain that coal dust blackens homes, patio furniture, and boats moored in the local marina. A comprehensive 2001 study* of coal dust emissions in Canada estimated that the Westshore Terminal emits roughly 715 metric tons of coal dust a year. And a recent study by researchers at the University of British Columbia found that the concentrations of coal dust in the vicinity of the terminal had doubled during the period from 1977 to 1999.

  • The Lamberts Point Coal Terminal in Norfolk, Virginia, which ships 28 million tons of coal annually, is legally permitted to release up to 50 tons of coal dust into the air each year. Black grit commonly coats cars, windowsills, and plants in neighboring communities. Soil samples taken throughout the city were found to contain up to 20 percent coal by weight at a site less than 1 kilometer from the docks, 3 percent coal at a site 5 kilometers away, and 1 percent coal as far as 12 kilometers away. High coal levels in soil samples taken along railroad tracks suggest that trains are another pathway for contamination. Researchers also found arsenic levels in Norfolk were five times higher than background soil concentrations nearby, and hypothesize that the coal export terminal is at least partially responsible for the difference.

    Is coal dust likely to be a problem at the export facilities planned for Longview and Bellingham? It’s difficult to say. Developers at each facility are promising to install a number of cutting-edge mitigation devices that they say will control the spread of coal dust. Yet it’s highly unlikely that the coal dust can be contained entirely. The huge piles of coal will be stored outdoors where it will be susceptible to windy conditions. And, of course, it will be disturbed frequently by machinery.

    Before moving forward with either project, it would be wise to carefully study the possible dispersion and effects of coal dust on communities near the export terminals.

    In addition to the problems at loading terminals, there is a separate set of issues related to the coal dust generated during shipment by rail. Those questions probably deserve careful study too, but I’ll take up that discussion in a later post.


    * Douglas L. Cope and Kamal K. Bhattacharyya, A Study of Fugitive Coal Dust Emissions in Canada, “Chapter 8: Coal Terminals: Fugitive Dust Emissions and Control,” prepared for The Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment, November 2001. Not available online.

    Thumbnail image: Ambre Energy: Dirty, Dangerous and Obsolete / Rainforest Action Network /