The Seward Phoenix Log - News of the Eastern Kenai Peninsula since 1966

By Fern Greenbank
LOG Editor 

RBCA air study results released


Russ Maddox

RBCA chairperson, Russ Maddox, writes in dust on the waterfront between the coal ship dock and the railroad dock. Evidence, he says, that coal dust from the coal loading facility is making its way to the harbor.

The Resurrection Bay Conservation Alliance, Community Action Against Toxins and Global Community Monitoring, released the results of their collaborative air quality testing study last week.

The report says air samples revealed that air around the Seward Coal Loading Facility contains elements of coal.

Not satisfied with the results of an air quality study conducted in 2012 by the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation in collaboration with the City of Seward, Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium and the Qutekcak Native Tribe, the RBCA partnered with Alaska Community Action on Toxics and Global Community Monitor, to study the composition of particulate air in select locations with consideration given to wind conditions and coal loading activity.

The study was designed to answer two questions: Is the particulate matter in the air a health hazard, particularly on windy days? And, what proportion of the particulate matter is attributable to the coal loading facility?

The 2012 study performed by ADEC was designed to test for the amount of particulate matter in the air around Seward, not to study what is in the dust.

"The DEC had been getting complaints about coal dust for years," said Bob Morgan, an environmental program specialist and project manager for the Seward study. "The city hall asked for our help studying the air quality."

The ADEC is required to use Environmental Projection Agency protocols and it is limited to those methods. The DEC can collect samples and test for violation of EPA standards. In the Seward case, said Morgan, because there are no current EPA standards for the compounds that make up coal, they could only test for the amount of particulate matter in the air.

The DEC study collected samples in three locations covering the entire area of Seward, not only the areas near the coal facility.

"The DEC's report was of little or no value to inform residents or visitors of any health risks to exposure to unhealthy air pollution at any given time," said Russ Maddox, president of the Resurrection Bay Conservation Alliance. "Our goal has been to determine if our air is ever unhealthy and what steps we can take to improve it. Our study revealed that at times it is unhealthy due to coal dust content."

Maddox said the next step should be real-time monitors like Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau and the Mat-Su all have to alert the public when air pollution reaches unhealthy levels. Residents and visitors have a have a right to know, he said.

From March 2012 through April 2013, members of the RBCA, with training provided by Global Community Monitor (GCM), selected locations for monitoring near the Seward Harbor and Lowell Point. For each sample, the filtering device collected particulate matter for a 24-hour period which was then sent to three independent laboratories: Bureau Veritas, Chemoptix and ChesterLab, labs that work with environmental oriented clients.

The sampling was conducted "to capture events when wind-blown dust was at its worst," the report said. In most cases, says the report, samples were taken when coal was being actively loaded or unloaded at the coal facility.

The samples chosen for analysis in the spring and fall of 2012 were "periodically shifted" to directly compare with the previous studies performed by the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, which determined the air quality around Seward to be "good." The RBCA samples were tested for toxic metals, carbon and silica. The latter was found to be high enough to be a "health concern," said the report.

Then, in the spring of 2013, samples were analyzed in smaller quantities because smaller particles pose the greatest risk, according to leading non-profit and governmental agencies. These samples were also analyzed for inorganic and organic carbon content. Organic carbon reveals the proportion of coal in the dust collected. Coal is the only significant local source of organic carbon, said the report, though diesel emission is also a source of organic carbon when present, such as the diesel equipment used at the coal facility.

Samples taken from the riverbed were also retrieved to compare proportion of carbon in the sediment and the air. The report says a sample of coal was 63.75 percent carbon while the riverbed sample showed 1.1 percent carbon.

A sample taken from a tank near the SCLF was shown to contain 37 percent carbon content.

"Most of the total carbon in the air samples was organic carbon," the report says. "Indicating the presence of coal as a significant component of the airborne fine particulate matter."

Particulate matter is measured based on the size of the matter, not the types of elements that are in the dust. The EPA and DEC protocols measure at a PM10 level, which means particles than 10 micrometers in diameter, thinner than a human hair.

The new study looks at smaller pieces of particulate matter, down to a PM2.5 measurement. The study commissioned by the local RBCA showed that concentrations of PM2.5 were almost the same as concentrations of PM10 on days when loading and unloading activities were occurring compared to days when loading and unloading were not occurring. But, the report says only four samples were collected on days when the "contemporaneous observations" showed that no loading or unloading was occurring. For two of those four samples, the report says, the workers at SCLF "decided that conditions were too windy" for loading and unloading.

In addition to testing for organic carbon, the community study looked at the presence of silicon and crystalline silica. The study showed that silicon found in samples was almost all crystalline silica which is known to cause serious health problems even if exposed for a short time period.

The bottom line conclusion of the community sponsored project was that coal dust does leave the SCLF site and lands on sites tested off the facility property and, the report says, the concentration of PM10 are, "at times," high enough to cause health problems in particular populations such as children, the elderly and those with chronic illnesses.

The report says its findings are consistent with concerns about coal dust from boat owners in the Seward Harbor, though Harbormaster Mack Funk says he is not getting complaints from boat owners about dust on their vessels.

It is the coal samples with particles less than PM2.5 in size that are the most worrisome, says the report, referring to statements made by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Some of the health problems associated with fine particulates in the air are strokes and asthma even with only short term exposure. The report refers to the American Lung Association's conclusion that health problems associated with particulate matter, short or long term in nature, can increase asthma, stunt lung development in children and increase respiratory problems.

The concentration of PM2.5 in Seward did not go beyond the safe limit of exposure set by the EPA and the World Health Organization. The report notes that "no regulations have been violated," but, it said, this does not equate to safety.

Maddox and the RBCA community science partners say the new study doesn't compete with the ADEC study. Rather, it complements it.

"The ADEC study did not speciate the dust to find out what was in the dust. That study had limitations we wanted to address," said Pam Miller, director of the environmental group Alaska Community Action on Toxics (ACAT).

Miller said she hopes their findings will cause action to be taken. Specifically, the recommendation warranted for better consistent monitoring.

"We know coal dust is a health hazard," said Miller. "We hope government agencies take this seriously. They should be accountable when they know there is a serious health risk."

Miller, along with the RBCA, want to see stringent measures put in place at the Seward Coal Loading Facility managed by Aurora Energy Services and owned by the Alaska Railroad.

The dispute between the coal facility's operator and owner and the Resurrection Bay Conservation Alliance goes back almost a decade and shows no sign of resolving itself any time soon.

"Because we are in litigation with these groups, I can't comment on the research or results," said Mike Hanson, general manager for Aurora Energy Services.

Hanson is referring to a lawsuit filed against the Alaska Railroad and Aurora Energy Services, not naming Usibelli Coal as the owner of the mining company delivering the coal.

The lawsuit claimed that coal dust landing in Resurrection Bay violated the Clean Water Act, but that case was dismissed in favor of the railroad and Aurora. In return, the ruling was appealed. The RBCA was not named as a plaintiff in that case, however, the Alaska Community Action on Toxics and the Sierra Club became involved with the Seward coal issues at the behest of RBCA.

Tim Sullivan, director of external affairs at the Alaska Railroad, said he, too, cannot comment directly on the study or its findings because of the current litigation.

"Because the litigation is pending in the 9th Circuit Court, we are reluctant to comment on anything that might affect the case," he said.

Lorali Simon, spokesperson for Usibelli Coal, also could not at this time because of the pending appeal.

Maddox says the Seward Coal Facility, owned by Alaska Railroad, used to employ dust reduction tools like bag houses and a sprinkler system and now it doesn't. He says consultants were hired by the railroad to assess their dust containment procedures and were told they were inadequate.

"When the Alaska Railroad decided to avoid the expense of refurbishing and operating and maintaining the bag-house ventilation systems and stockpile sprinklers that the former operators utilized to comply with their air permit and limit coal dust emissions to below their 70-ton annual threshold, they literally condemned Seward and vicinity to being exposed to hundreds of tons of toxic and completely unnecessary coal dust annually. This is privatizing profits and socializing losses," said Maddox.

The concentration of PM10 in this study and the DEC air quality study were below EPA standards but the results were higher than those allowed under the WHO recommendations on two samples. The data, it was reported, support the conclusion that concentrations of PM10 are, at times, high enough to cause health problems in particular segments of the population, which "bolsters" the case for implementing measures to reduce pollution and for increasing monitoring in certain locations for air particulates.

Coal dust with silica content is a "well known" occupational hazard, said the report. In the Seward air samples, the data shows that "nearly all" of the silicon found was in the form of crystalline silica, which creates a stronger respiratory irritant than "amorphous silica." In two of the Seward samples, crystalline silica levels were high enough to fall in the health risk category based on the a "reference exposure level" created by the OEHHA. Because of these two "spikes," the report says more "consistent monitoring" downwind of the SCLF is recommended and action taken to reduce exposure.

The environmental groups recommend additional monitoring of populated areas near and down wind of the coal facility to gather more "robust" data that could help determine what needs to be done to prevent exposure. And, the groups say, measures should include "the best available technology" to limit fugitive coal dust from reaching the people of Seward.

Currently, the coal facility meets all agency standards and requirements.

Maddox, the RBCA and their environmental partners know some people do not take community monitoring projects seriously, but the work of Global Community Monitoring across time has yielded good results in terms of community research resulting in new legislation and improved air quality, its website claims.

"Our organization is credible," said ACAT president Miller, ACAT. "The research is peer reviewed by preeminent health experts. We work really hard to make sure our research is credible."

Miller, and ADEC's Bob Morgan, say coal dust has not been as deeply researched as other fuels such as oil and gas. A lot isn't known about "fugitive" coal dust that emanates from coal loading facilities and moving trains.

Miller said the environmentalists hope, at the very least, agencies will rethink their testing methods and goals.

"In the end, science is not enough," said Miller. "We need policies and enforcement."

RBCA and ACAT are not advocating the shutdown of the Seward Coal Facility, they say. Rather, they want the facility to utilize known techniques to reduce the amount of dust making its way into the harbor and homes. Maddox routinely takes pictures of black coal dust settling on surfaces, such as boats in the harbor, and then writes in the dust to prove this point.

"We now have real evidence that one half of the dust is coal," said Maddox. He also says the science is hard to understand but they look to other facilities, like those in California, that say our air levels are unhealthy. He says the RBCA is working on legislation that would change the language describing fugitive dust to be more specific and inclusive of the origin of the particulate matter.

Maddox does express frustration over what he sees as a lack of concern for public health on the part of the city.

"The city has never injected itself on the public's behalf," said Maddox.

But, Assistant City Manager Ron Long said the city did take steps to address the citizen complains by asking the DEC to step in and test the air quality in Seward.

"That test deemed our air to be of good quality," said Long. "The DEC used EPA guidelines. We trust DEC's assessment."

At the onset of citizen complaints, said Long, the city coordinated a series of public meetings with boat owners and the railroad did make substantial changes.

The DEC did fine the railroad for two violations in 2007 and Aurora Energy Services, Usibelli Coal and the railroad took steps to contain dust to the satisfaction of the Alaska DEC.

Long said the city has no authority to force Aurora or Usibelli or the railroad to change its practices.

"If there was a remote chance of a health risk, we wanted to address it and we did," said Long. "I see nothing in this new study that requires the city to act, but I am reviewing it."

More information about the Seward coal dust study can be found on the Alaska Community Action on Toxics website.


Reader Comments

enough writes:

Think the air at Lowell Point sure could use the 'air' quality investigation. How about focusing on helping with the sewer smells, which we are hearing can be very toxic? Folks are getting ill from them, businesses are losing money. Think this coal dog has been kicked around long enough. Road dust is a greater air problem when the wind 'blows'.


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