By Heidi Zemach for SCN-
The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation is taking public comment on its revised permit–one that allows Aurora Services LLC to continue incidentally releasing coal into Resurrection Bay while loading ships from the Seward coal conveyor belt and ship loader. Aurora manages the Seward storage transfer facility for Usibelli Coal and the Alaska Railroad Corporation. The comments must be submitted to DEC by December 21st, at 5:00 p.m.
This is the first APDES draft wastewater discharge permit ever for this particular pollutant–coal, and for the coal industry. Thus, the permit conditions ADEC developed, relied heavily on the agency’s experience with the timber and seafood industries. It is a work in progress.
The revised permit has a few minor changes to the first version, which were made after hearing from 35 members of the public at a Seward hearing on August 5th, said ADEC representative William Ashton. The agency also received “a fair amount” of form-style letters, he said, and 8-10 other individuals commented independently. The Environmental Protection Agency also reviewed the permit to assure that it conforms to the Clean Water Act.
“The changes are, we made the Zone Of Deposit smaller,” Ashton said. “We reduced it from 30 acres to 21 acres. Then we added a section on Adaptive Management, or how the facility adapts to coal spillage and reduces coal spillage. It says if they’ve got certain conditions, they must upgrade their best management practices.”
The Zone of Deposit, (ZOD) is an area in which coal may be permitted to fall and collect. It extends from the end of the belt conveyor to the end of the mooring dolphins, and outward on either side of the conveyor and loader systems. Its eastern and western boundaries are 1,500 feet and 1,640 feet. Its northern and southern boundaries are 415 feet and 602 feet respectively. The size is important because it affects the sum that is used to calculate the amount of coal on the sea floor that would trigger reporting, adaptive management or a required remediation response.
The permit limits coal spillage to one solid acre of continuous coal coverage, measured 4 inches in depth. A seafloor coal monitoring survey must be completed within the first year of the permit, and every year after that if more than .9 acre of continuous coal coverage is detected.
If a seafloor survey shows that aggregate (or summed piles of) coal coverage equals or exceeds a moderate measurable increase on the sea floor, the permittee is required to notify DEC. And if the most recent estimate of spillage exceeds the baseline average by 10 percent, then the permittee must follow its own Adaptive Management Plan (AMP). The baseline average is calculated by Aurora estimating the average of the amount of coal that would likely be spilled from the first four coal ships loaded.
AES proposed the original 30-acre Zone of Deposit after contracting with Haggitt Consulting, a small Washington State 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 study concluded that the sea floor 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.” The survey did find coal present in four of nine video transect areas, however, and saw coal accumulations in two other areas, but none of them were 4-inches deep. A separate toxicology study the company commissioned, analyzing dissolved oxygen levels, also proved within the normal range.
Videos and photographs taken showed that Alaska marine life were present on the sea floor, which appeared to be consistent with the type and diversity of life commonly found near areas associated with vessel traffic, according to DEC.
“We also added a section on monitoring spillage during loading. That was one of the concerns of the public, and was based on public comment,” Ashton said. The new draft permit also requires Aurora to visually monitor the coal loading process with respect to coal falling into the water, and to report any sheens of oil on the water’s surface that they may observe. The latter would require immediate remediation.
The Adaptive Management Plan must be submitted Aurora within 180 days of receiving the permit. They would use it as a structure with which to monitor operations at the facility and to make improvements to help reduce the incidental discharge of coal.
“The permit that’s out for public comment, we’re certainly amendable to that permit,” said Aurora Energy spokesperson Loreli Simon. “There are no objections from us at this time.”
Comment on the latest permit are still being created. But during the public hearing in Seward, several people observed that the permit allows the coal facility to continue doing exactly what it has already been doing, without requiring remediation for the past decades of coal spillage, and that it even allows for approximately the same rate of future coal spillage. Even requiring yearly seafloor monitoring doesn’t mean it will occur directly after a loading, when the coal might still be visible, and not hidden by glacial silt, or redistributed by the tides and water motion.
“This is a big win for the people of the Seward community! However, our work is not done,” said Pamela Miller, the executive director of Alaska Community Action on Toxics, referring to the permit, and also last week’s court settlement between ACAT and the Alaska chapter of the Sierra Club, who sued Aurora, Usibelli and the Alaska Railroad Corporation, arguing among other thing, that the coal transfer facility had not been operating under the required DEC individual discharge permit. They won the case, and a court-ordered Compliance Order required Aurora to file for the new permit, abide by its conditions, and pay $363,500- the two group’s legal fees. On August 6, 2013, Aurora and ARRC had petitioned the Alaska District Court to require the environmental groups to reimburse their own legal fees fighting the court challenge to date, which amounted to $2.2 million.
“The permitting process for the facility is still ongoing, and we are committed to working with state and federal regulators to make sure the final permit includes meaningful protections for Resurrection Bay and the Seward community,” Miller said.
“The coal has accumulated over a long period of time, and there hasn’t been an in-depth study of the effects on marine life in the bay,” said Ricky Junquera, the press secretary for the Sierra Club region that includes Alaska. He noted that there haven’t been any studies done into the public health ramifications of coal spillage, or fugitive coal dust from the railcars or stockpiles. “But last year, in the company’s own study, they took a 12- inch deep sample, and coal was found down to the bottom of the core sample. That was just what the sample picked up, so you can only imagine how much more there is, and deeper it goes from decades of coal dumping into the bay,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Seward coal transfer facility remains in layoff mode, with fewer than three employees working there part-time, and no coal ships currently scheduled for 2016. It’s not due to any legal fees or court costs. It’s because of a downturn in the global/ Pacific Rim markets for coal. And it means that permit or not, there won’t be any coal falling into the bay– at least not any time soon.