Alaska, Business, Harbor News, Health, Science

Conservation Groups Release Dust Monitoring Findings

By Rick Smeriglio for SCN –

Coal ship Shandong Hai Wang takes on load of coal in Seward last June. Photo by R. Smeriglio
Coal ship Shandong Hai Wang takes on load of coal in Seward last June. Photo by R. Smeriglio

At a press conference held in Anchorage on July 17, Resurrection Bay Conservation Alliance, Alaska Community Action on Toxics and Global Community Monitoring released results of a 1.5-year-long, airborne dust sampling and analysis effort. Key findings from the 15-page report “Coal Dust in Alaska: Hazards to Public Health” by Heidi Zimmer 2014, include that most dust one mile downwind of the Seward Coal Loading Facility comes from coal and most crystalline silica in the dust also comes from coal, not from local silt or bare earth. Sierra Club and Alaska Conservation Foundation funded the work. Sponsors of the report claim this as the first scientific, peer-reviewed, data-based report that identifies the source of dust in Seward.

Local volunteers used two, Airmetrics MiniVol portable air samplers (standard automated scientific devices) moved to various locations around Seward. The majority of the samples came from a vessel moored at the seaward end of H-float in Seward small boat harbor, south of the coal pile at the end of the railroad tracks. Most sampling occurred on north windy days with coal loading in progress between February 2012 and April 2013. Bureau Veritas, Chemoptix and ChesterLab analyzed the samples according to the report. Three holders of PhD’s in fields related to the sampling and a medical doctor associated with Physicians for Social Responsibility reviewed the report.

This most recent sampling of airborne particles in Seward differs from the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation sampling done in 2011 and 2012. ADEC sampled air for 15 months more or less continually, regardless of weather. The ADEC sampling looked at overall, ambient air-quality throughout Seward and sought to determine if dust particles less than 10 microns in diameter, from all sources, exceeded regulatory standards. They did not. This most recent conservation-citizens’ sampling sought to identify the source of dust in the air and looked at particles smaller than 2.5 microns in diameter, on selected days. Human hair has a diameter of about 90 microns. The conservation citizens contend that the dust they found on windy days, which their evidence indicates comes from coal, could cause health problems.

At the press conference and in subsequent e-mails, Dr. Paul Forman of Anchorage, a physician formerly practicing in Seward and active in the Sierra Club said, “There is no question that Seward has its share of cancer and health problems … There may be natural particulates in the air, but that does not negate the benefits of reducing exposure to additional particulates.”

Dr. Forman referred to dust that arises in Resurrection River valley when dry, north wind billows silt and road sand around town. He said multiple factors contribute to cancer and lung disease which made it difficult to isolate the specific effects of coal dust. He made an analogy to heart disease saying that even if an individual had a history indicating likely heart disease, that individual would still benefit from stopping his smoking.


In closing, Dr. Forman said, “Even if there are other factors that may contribute to the presence of disease in the community, it would still be good for Seward to eliminate the reversible risks by decreasing the exposure of Seward people to coal dust.”

According to the report, crystalline silica particles smaller than 2.5 microns in diameter occur in significant amounts in the analyzed air/dust samples. These particles pose a risk and have an association with the disease, silicosis. Denny Larson, Executive Director of the organization, Global Community Monitoring, explained the crystalline silica point. He said that forensic laboratories looked at individual particles on the sampling filters and compared them to individual particles from a reference sample of coal at the Seward Coal Loading Facility. The particles matched. Most particles on the sampling filters consisted of coal found at the facility. The labs then tested for crystalline silica in the particles on the filters. They found it. Therefore, he reasoned, the majority of crystalline silica in the dust, from the samples, comes from coal that comes from the Seward Coal Loading Facility.

Lorali Simon, Vice President for External Affairs at Usibelli Coal, the company that ships coal through the Seward facility did not wish to respond on the record directly to the report. She said that she had only seen the report about one hour before. She indicated that Usibelli probably would not comment in the near future. In 2010, ADEC fined Alaska Railroad Corporation and Aurora Energy Services, which operates the coal facility in Seward, for violations of air quality standards related to coal dust. Usibelli Coal, ARRC and Aurora Energy Services have taken measures to abate coal dust at the coal terminal. A joint Seward Chamber of Commerce/Port and Commerce Advisory Board survey of 308 harbor users in 2009 did not indicate coal dust did as a major complaint, but did generate some negative comments about coal dust from users.

Simon said, “We [Usibelli Coal] will not have a formal comment at this time because it is a report produced by a group [Sierra Club, ACAT, RBCA] we are currently in litigation with.”

Alaska Chapter of the Sierra Club and Alaska Community Action on Toxics brought suit in federal court against Aurora Energy Services and Alaska Railroad Corporation regarding alleged violations of the federal Clean Water Act in Seward at the coal terminal. The losing parties have appealed to the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, where the suit now resides.

Lead author of the report Heidi Zimmer, did not give contact information in the report, did not speak at the conference and did not respond to e-mail inquiries forwarded through Alaska Action on Toxics, host of the press conference. Zimmer did not respond to the question posed by SCN, of the applicability of the report to the issue of coal dust in the whole of Seward given that most of the samples came from a lone sample-site in the small boat harbor.

(FULL DISCLOSURE STATEMENT: The author gave his permission to use his vessel as one of the sampling sites for the report referred to in this article. The sampling and permission occurred before his association with Seward City News.)



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