Business, City of Seward

Burn the right fuel correctly

Wood StoveSome Seward residents have been turning to coal because of its availability and cheaper cost when compared to wood, and certainly to the costs of fuel oil and electricity these days. There has been some debate at the Seward City Council level, and on Seward City News recently about residents complaining about its smell, health effects, and about how to get people to burn it properly, in the right stove.

The Alaska Division of Fire and Life Safety has just issued a warning to all Alaskan’s to make sure that when burning “alternative heat sources” such as coal or wood to heat their homes, that the type of material that they are using follows their stove’s manufacturer’s guidelines. Furthermore, the state division said consumers should be sure that your wood or coal burning stove has been tested and approved by a third party testing laboratory such as UL.”

“New technologies have improved the efficiency and safety of these old standby heat sources, but improper use and the failure to follow manufacturer guidelines can result in a disaster for the occupants of the home,” the division stated in a press release issued over the weekend.

“Just as it is important to use dry seasoned wood in a woodstove to prevent the buildup of creosote in the chimney, it is important to check the moisture content in the type of coal that you are burning,” it adds.

The problem these days is that more people are starting to burn the softer, lower grade bituminous coal with a higher moisture content in their coal stoves, often against the manufacturer’s instruction that may specify that they burn anthracite, the harder, higher grade coal, said Mahlon Greene, the State’s Division of Fire and Life Safety’s Education Officer. As the bituminous and sub-bituminous coal has much higher moisture content, burning it in a coal stove intended for the harder variety can cause dangerous build up in the stove or chimney, it can explode or cause the stove to fail, or the chimney stack to catch fire, Greene said. There have already been some examples of this occurring around Fairbanks, he added.

Greene also suggested customers ask their own supplier what type of coal they are selling, and make sure it fits within the manufacturers guidelines.

According to a new research report that Clean Air Fairbanks issued October 26th, 2013, the coal presently being sold to customers throughout Alaska is the softer variety of coal, sub-Bituminous coal mined in Healy by Usibelli Coal Inc. Coal stoves are typically designed for coal types such as the higher quality Anthracite, and occasionally Bituminous coal not available in Alaska, however, the report said. High-moisture coal burns with higher emissions, and thus carries a higher risk of explosions, chimney fires and structure fires.

Anthracite coal typically comes from locations far from Alaska, primarily Pennsylvania and West Virginia.


Risks to safety and property losses are why manufacturer warranties restrict fuel use to low-moisture coal, Clean Air researchers said. UL certification is limited to fuels approved by the manufacturer. To misuse a stove with improper fuel‒even just one time‒voids the warranty and UL certification. UL certification is in the fine print of insurance policies, mortgage agreements, leases, and other contracts pertaining to property and liabilities. Therefore, the use of Alaska coal for heating raises significant, unrecognized liabilities for consumers.

The Clean Air Fairbanks report* also has includes a list of a variety of coal stoves commonly found in Alaska, chiefly five Harmon brand stoves, and their recommendations regarding the type of coal they should burn. Some of the information it contains was solicited specifically from the stove-companies.

The report also points to the Alaska Fire Marshal 2012 report that states that the most common cause of residential structure fires was heating (28%). The largest reported heating fire source was operating equipment (26%). Coal fires were not broken out as a subset, however.

Usibelli coal from Healy is shipped north to Fairbanks for use in the four small coal-fired power plants in the Interior, or transported on the Alaska Railroad to the Seward coal loading facility for shipment via Aurora Energy Services directly to markets in South Korea, Chile and Japan.  There it is blended with higher-quality coal to reduce sulphur emissions and to comply with air quality regulations.

Some coal is sold directly to local Seward customers, mainly as a service to the local residents who can’t afford the high fuel oil prices, said Mike Hanson, Aurora Services Facilities Manager. Hanson hasn’t noticed an increase in coal sales to these local customers who actually make up only a tiny fracture of the overall business. His company doesn’t, and legally isn’t allowed to recommend a certain brand of stoves for customers to use with its coal, and isn’t aware of what’s on the market in that regard.

The real issue that the public should be discussing, he said, isn’t the pros and cons of burning coal, it’s that whatever “alternative fuel” folks are burning, they are burning it correctly, and maintaining their equipment as instructed by the manufacturer. There are some people burning wood in wood stoves, and fuel oil stoves that are also stinking because they are not being correctly used or properly maintained, Hanson said.

Reported by Heidi Zemach for SCN

(*edited for clarity as to which report was being described.)



  1. The author has misunderstood or misrepresented a point in the Alaska Fire Marshal 2012 report you referenced. The author wrote:
    “The largest reported heating fire source was operating equipment (26%).”

    What the Alaska Fire Marshall 2012 report actually says is “Operating equipment was the number one heat source.” This means operating equipment is the source of the heat for the fires, not that it’s a “heating fire source”. Since “Cigarette” is listed as another heat source for the fires it’s pretty obvious that folks are not heating their homes with cigarettes. Operating equipment could be any equipment in a home to include ovens, clothes dryers, etc. and not just equipment that’s used to heat a home. I see that the Clean Air Fairbanks report stated this in a misleading way: “According to the Alaska Fire Marshal 2012 report, the most common cause of residential structure fires was heating (28%) and the largest of those was from operating equipment (26%).” If “those” refers to residential structure fires, then the statement is correct, but if “those” refers to heating fires the statement is incorrect. I see Russ is cited for “research support” on the Clean Air Fairbanks report and what would we do without lawyers telling us what to think even when they’re twisting a factual report into a biased article? Journalism is not well served by parroting a biased article instead of referencing the source material.

    The author also wrote:
    “The report also has includes a list of a variety of coal stoves commonly found in Alaska, chiefly five Harmon brand stoves, and their recommendations regarding the type of coal they should burn.”
    To avoid being misleading, the author should have specified that this information was not in the Alaska Fire Marshal 2012 report referenced in the sentences immediately proceeding this statement, but in the report by Clean Air Fairbanks.

    Another part of the article that’s incorrect is when the author wrote that Usibelli coal is shipped overseas to be “blended with higher-quality coal to reduce its sulphur emissions.” The truth is exactly the opposite. Alaskan coal is very low in sulphur and it’s blended with other coals in Asia to lower the sulphur emissions of the non-Alaskan coals. Try out his link at USGS ( that states “Alaskan coal resources have a lower sulfur content (averaging 0.3 percent) than most coals in the conterminous United States are within or below the minimum sulfur value mandated by the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments.”

    There’s just too much to address in one sitting, so I’ll leave the readers with these bits to mull over as they read this article.

    • sissy- You are so eager to find flaws to criticize that you missed the whole point. But don’t worry you’ll get plenty of chances to read and hear plenty more from other media sources across the state soon. This revelation renders hundreds of homes across the state uninsurable.

      And thanks to Neil Wasmund for pointing out the fact that folks are unsafely burning coal in woodstoves in Seward or this useful information never would have been fully understood.

      The point is that burning our low grade coal in many stoves is not only unsafe but uninsurable. As far as I could find out there was only one model(Romax)coal stove ever made in Alaska for Alaska coal that was actually UL certified but they went out of business.

      I will try to address some of your concerns.

      If you are concerned with fire statistics please call the State Fire Marshal’s office and I assure you they will clear up any confusion you may have. That is their bailiwick not mine. I assure you they are very concerned having just learned that coal is being unsafely burned in heaters across the state not designed for our low grade coal.

      As far as Harman stoves go the manufacturer has confirmed that their heaters should not be used with the only coal available in Alaska, Call them. Or call me and I’ll share their correspondence.

      Obviously I didn’t write this article but perhaps the blending bit could have been written clearer but its you that seems confused. I think we all understand that Usibelli coal is low in sulfur, that is its single redeeming characteristic. What is missing in the article is that the high grade anthracite it is mixed with overseas is usually very high in sulfur and Usibelli coal being LOW in sulfur is added to “blend down” the overall sulfur dioxide stack emissions. Got it?

      • Russ, I’m doing further research on the topics in this article to validate them or highlight further corrections if needed. While not in the article itself, you said in your comment: “And thanks to Neil Wasmund for pointing out the fact that folks are unsafely burning coal in woodstoves in Seward or this useful information never would have been fully understood.”

        I’ve reviewed all the comments made by Neil Wasmund on the previous article ( and do not see anything of the sort and Google does not yield any other references. Please provide the link to where Neil Wasmund made those comments so we can all read the primary source.

  2. Russ, you must not realize how condescending your response was. I’m not confused and I understand the article completely. My point was that the article got several key points dead wrong and that the readers should have the truth and not someone’s spin or poor reporting. Everything I wrote was making that point, yet you jump to the conclusion that I’m confused or missing the point. I’m not.

    I don’t need to call the State Fire Marshall’s office and I’m not concerned with fire statistics. But I can read and what the article wrote was incorrect and not what the Fire Marshall report stated. I encourage readers to look at the Fire Marshall report (linked in the article) at the bottom of page 32 and top of page 33 so they can see it themselves and see that the original article was wrong and your response only implies I’m some idiot who’s “confused” and “missing the point”. It’s just more and more manipulation of people to get them to think what you want them to think. J

    I didn’t comment on the Harman stoves at all, so I don’t need to call them. I only clarified which report the stove information was in because the clear implication from the article was that it was in the Fire Marshall’s report, which has an entirely different meaning than being in the Clean Air Fairbanks report. Again, your response goes off on some other point and not sticking to the facts of my comment.

    As to the low sulfur content, the article clearly leads the reader to think Alaska coal is high in sulfur:
    “There it is blended with higher-quality coal to reduce its sulphur emissions and to comply with air quality regulations.”
    The “it” in the first part of the sentence refers to Usibelli coal, so the reader would normally assume the “its” in the second part of the sentence is also referring to the Usibelli coal. So that’s misleading and I was pointing that out. No, not everybody knows Alaska coal is low in sulfur and it’s because of articles like this that generate confusion.

    Just give people the truth and not manipulation and let them think for themselves.

    • Sissy,
      Thanks for your comments.
      You are quite correct that the “it” where it was placed seemed to refer to Alaska’s coal’s sulphur content, rather than that of the combined types of coal, and that the report I was describing in regard to the stoves was Clear Air Fairbanks’ report.
      I hope I have made that clearer now.

      I do believe that those who look at the Fire Marshall’s Report, Pages 32-33, will see that Heating was indeed listed as the top cause of residential structure fires for last year, (not smoking or cooking) and that operating equipment was listed as the leading cause of fires.

  3. Thanks for this excellent safety information and helping to keep Seward’s families safe. This is a thoughtful and helpful article.