Alaska, Harbor News, Health, Maritime

DEC hears different views of AES’s permit to allow coal to fall into bay

DEC Public Hearing on Coal permit  in Seward August 5th, 2015. Heidi Zemach photo.
DEC Public Hearing on Coal permit in Seward August 5th, 2015. Heidi Zemach photo.

By Heidi Zemach for SCN –

About 35 people attended a public hearing by the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation on its plan to issue an individual pollutant discharge elimination system permit to Aurora Energy Services Inc., allowing it to legally allow coal to fall from its belt conveyor system, transfer feeder, and swing arm shiploader system into Resurrection Bay. The hearing took place at Seward Community Museum Library Wednesday, August 5th.

Crimson Monarch as it receives 68,400 metric tons of coal from Usibelli mine in Healy, coming off the conveyor belt. Heidi Zemach photo.
Crimson Monarch as it receives 68,400 metric tons of Usibelli coal delivered from the conveyor belt. Heidi Zemach photo.

Although Aurora will try to prevent it from happening, DEC’s draft permit will allow coal to accidentally fall into a 30-acre “Zone of Deposit,” while being conveyed over the water, lifted, and loaded onto large coal barges for export to Asia or Chile. The proposed zone of deposit is a trapezoidal shape delineated on the bay floor that extends from the south fence of the coal loading facility to the end of the mooring dolphins, and on either side of the transfer systems.

At some point during the third year of the permit, Aurora would conduct a seafloor coal monitoring survey to inspect the 30-acre deposit zone. If the sea floor shows an “aggregate continuous coverage” of coal that exceeds one acre, with a thickness of four inches, the permit would trigger further actions. AES would be required to develop a remediation plan over the next four months and would work with the state to implement the plan. AES also would need to submit a Quality Assurance Project Plan and implement additional monitoring techniques, as part of new reporting requirements that the permit already mandates.

A handful of AES employees and some Alaska Railroad Corporation employees attended the hearing, some arriving in work clothes, and sporting “I heart Alaskan Clean Coal” buttons. Members or supporters of various statewide Alaska environmental organizations called for the new DEC permit to include stronger protections for the bay, based on third-party independent monitoring and more specific science. Wearing “I heart Clean Water” and “Save Our Bay” stickers, all were concerned that the permit would allow the 30-year old coal transfer facility to continue to operate much as it has for decades.

Griffen Plush, of Seward, testifies against allowing more coal into the bay at DEC Hearing in Seward. Heidi Zemach photo.
Griffen Plush, of Seward, testifies against allowing more coal into the bay at DEC Hearing in Seward. Heidi Zemach photo.

“I’ve always really enjoyed the pristine nature of our bay,” said Seward resident Griffin Plush, a recent high school graduate. He had fond memories of leaving Kindergarten to go sailing with his father on Resurrection Bay. But as a child, he also suffered from asthma, and said his health condition was always aggravated when the coal trains came to town. “I don’t think it’s too much to ask that we have as strong regulations as possible to protect the things that we enjoy,” he concluded.

Other opponents of the permit in its current form questioned DEC on its trigger for remediation requiring one-acre of continuous coal coverage within the 30-acre zone, with a uniform 4” depth. DEC representatives explained that standard was borrowed directly from permits designed to allow log transfer facilities to operate in southeast Alaska, which seemed to work well. The same requirements are also used to permit Alaska seafood processing plants to dispose of fish waste, they said, though admitting that this would be the first individual discharge permit DEC has ever issued for coal.

“That seems like a pivotal component of this permit,” said Mark Luttrell, Resurrection Bay Conservation Alliance’s former president. “And if it’s just anecdotally correct because of the logging industry and the fishing industry and their waste products, maybe that’s right, but maybe not. Coal’s different than log chips and fish waste.” Luttrell proposed that the permit require a third-party, independent analysis of the proposed discharge trigger requirement, focusing on the properties and effects of coal, rather than lumber.

AES proposed they be permitted the 30-acre zone of deposit after contracting with Haggitt Consulting, a small Washington firm, which conducted a dive study of the sea floor in the winter of 2014, close to the time of two coal ship loadings. The survey found coal present in four of the nine video transect areas, and saw coal accumulations in two areas, but none of them were as deep as four-inches. The study concluded that the area did not contain significant coal transfer debris as there was “zero acreage of continuous coverage of coal debris as defined by 100-percent cover within a 3-foot by 3-foot area.” It found “zero acreage of discontinuous coverage of coal debris.”
Videos and photographs taken by the survey showed active Alaska marine life were present on the sea floor, which appeared consistent with the type and diversity of life commonly found near areas associated with vessel traffic, according to the DEC draft permit. A separate toxicology study, analyzing dissolved oxygen levels also proved within the normal range.

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A temporary fiber drip pan was in place beneath the conveyor belt at the time of the ship loading process—but  later was removed, leading to unrealistic conditions for the dive survey, a speaker said. Aurora officials informed him it had since been replaced with a better, more lasting one.

Layers of silt washes over any coal fallen in the bay, burying it and removing it from sight, as the dive studies and the core samples taken indicate, other speakers said. Wave action and tidal cycles also probably disperses the coal deposits over a larger area and does not allow it to accumulate in an acre of continuous coverage, of any specific depth. Seward birder Carol Griswold was “kind of appalled” with the information reflected in the draft permit, and with the lack of baseline data of what the sea floor looked like decades ago. “We should have had a baseline survey,” she said. “What did it look like in 1980? What does it look like every year?” She suggested the DEC permit require more frequent surveys to monitor sea floor conditions, adding it seems crazy to wait four years: “Just because we can’t see through the water, doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.”

AES' coal belt enclosure from below, photo courtesy of Rob Brown, Usibelli Coal.
AES’ coal belt enclosure from below, photo courtesy of Rob Brown, Usibelli Coal.

“This individual permit further protects Resurrection Bay,” said Rob Brown, Usibelli Coal’s vice president of business development. “The fact of the matter is we are always trying to make that facility better.” Usibelli  recently spent hundreds of thousands of dollars implementing its own Best Management Practices (BMP) plan to prevent or minimize the discharge of coal, he said. The company installed wider drip pans beneath the conveyor system to collect coal carried back from the belt return. The new enclosure (pictured here) extends seven inches beyond the return side of the conveyor. The company has also covered the conveyor system, installed multiple wipers on the conveyor belt, purchased belt scrapers, replaced seals, and made modifications to the chute. “There have been extensive environmental improvements made at the terminal each and every year. This is part of a continuous improvement process that I’m proud of, and that the employees and management at Aurora Energy Services and Usibelli are very proud of,” Brown said.

He also detailed economic benefits of the coal industry to Seward– millions of dollars spent locally on year-round wages, taxes, goods and services. “The terminal pay is much higher than the industry average in Seward, and offers benefits to employees which are second to none,” he said. “We take care of our people, and pay them a lot.”

In similar fashion Stephanie Wheeler, an Alaska Railroad Corporation spokesperson, said the coal industry provides 100 good-paying jobs to Alaskans including 16 Aurora positions, 50 railroad jobs attributed to coal delivery, and 40 jobs at Usibelli Coal Mine in Healey.  At its peak in 2011, the export business saw 1 million metric tons of coal delivered on 200 coal trains to Seward, Wheeler said. “In recent years, the strong US dollar has made U.S. exports less attractive, but this business remains important.”

Aurora Energy Services’ application for an individual permit by DEC, is required as part of a Compliance Order with the State of Alaska in response to the conclusion of a 2009 lawsuit filed against the facility by Alaska Community Action on Toxics and the Alaska chapter of the Sierra Club. In mid-June, the U.S. Supreme Court decided not to appeal a ruling by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that found that coal falling into the bay was not allowable under the company’s general storm-water discharge permit under the Clean Water Act. That ruling overturned a 2013 decision in Alaska District Court decision generally favoring AES’ position that the general waste water discharge permit covered all of its operations.

Julie Wahl, a Sierra Club volunteer from Anchorage said the effects of coal pollution also helps the health industry by making people sick. She testified she was “deeply disappointed” in AES’ decision to defend its position legally, and in the draft permit application. “You have chosen the path of denial. Denial of adverse effects on the environment, denying any responsibility in safeguarding the waterways,” she said. “I fail to see how any study carried out by a coal company can tell me that coal does not impact our environment. The realization that this organization has spent millions of dollars trying to sidestep responsibility sickens me.” She concluded; “Turn down this permit to pollute. Coal is our history, not our future. Keep it in the ground, not in the water.”

Lorali Simon, Usibelli Coal Mine Vice President of External Affairs testifies at DEC hearing in Seward. Heidi Zemach photo.
Lorali Simon, Usibelli Coal Mine Vice President of External Affairs testifies at DEC hearing in Seward. Heidi Zemach photo.

Lorali Simon, Vice President of External Affairs for Usibelli Coal Mine, Inc., responded that the company was forced to defend itself when sued by environmental groups and added it has always been operating legally. Aside from the additional reporting requirements, DEC’s individual permit wouldn’t change coal transfer operations at the facility in any substantial way, she said. Accusing coal’s opponents of deliberately lying to instill fear and hysteria just to further their goals, she added that the industry had become a “moving target” of extreme environmentalists.
“Whether we checked all of the boxes that you had for us today wouldn’t really matter because the environmental organizations would come back tomorrow and find something else, so. It would be impossible for industry to completely satisfy the environmental lobby,” she said. “But what we’re committed to doing here at Aurora Energy Services and at Usibelli is operating the Seward coal loading facility in a manner that protects public health and the environment, and trying to be good corporate citizens where we can provide good family wage jobs in the community.”

ADEC will accept public comments on the draft permit proposal until August 17th. For inquiries or to request copies of documents contact williamashton@alaska.gov, or call him at 907 269-6283.

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