Federal and state regulators assessing proposals for coal export terminals in the Pacific Northwest are being urged to look closely at the environmental impacts of fugitive dust and coal from trains and storage piles.
The lead federal permit agency, the Army Corps of Engineers, has been hearing a lot lately about dust from activists opposing the terminals.
And some of those foes are threatening to sue BNSF Railway Co. and other coal haulers for alleged violations of the Clean Water Act from coal and coal dust falling from trains into waterways.
"The discharges also constitute fill material, some of which remains present and visible in areas within the vicinity of the train tracks running on or near wetlands, streams, rivers and other areas subject to CWA jurisdiction," the groups said in their notice of intent to sue.
"The dischargers have never obtained a [National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System] permit or dredge and fill permit for such discharges," say the groups. "The types of discharges that have occurred, are occurring and that are likely to continue to occur are not permitted under federal law."
BNSF quickly called the litigation threat a "nuisance lawsuit without merit" and stressed its advocacy for stronger dust controls through the federal Surface Transportation Board, in part to prevent derailments.
But the Army Corps will be weighing dust impacts.
"I think it's safe to say that Portland District will consider the effects of coal dust in the area of the activity we are permitting," district spokesman Scott Clemans said of the Ambre Energy Ltd. Port of Morrow project along the Columbia River.
And the corps' Seattle District and Washington state regulators released a "scoping" report for their review of SSA Marine's Cherry Point, Wash., proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal that included public comments about coal dust.
But Seattle District spokeswoman Patricia Cook Graesser said it was too soon to say whether coal dust would be part of the agency's project review. "Specifics about content would be just speculation at this point," she said.
While the debate on the health impact of coal dust on miners has long been settled, the impacts of diffuse dust in the open air isn't so simple, researchers say.
"There's no question that in an occupational setting, prolonged exposure to coal dust is hazardous," said Eric de Place, policy chief for the Sightline Institute, a Seattle-based nonprofit focused on sustainability issues. "I am very concerned that we don't know enough about incidental exposure."
After surveying research on the issue, de Place wrote a blog post noting the lack of peer-reviewed studies on the subject.
"It's entirely conceivable to me that it's not harmful at low doses, but I don't know if the question has been answered in the peer-reviewed literature," de Place said.
'Very meager' evidence
Coal companies don't see the issue as being in question. They pointed to statements by toxicology specialist and veterinarian Roger McClellan, who expressed doubts that unburned coal could have harmful effects (E&ENews PM, April 2).
"I pull a piece of coal out of the water or you find a chunk of coal on my Christmas stocking, I don't know of any case that it's a health hazard," said McClellan, who once chaired U.S. EPA's Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee.
In a more recent interview, McClellan agreed with coal export foes that an in-depth review of the proposed terminals and associated activities was needed to assess dust impacts.
"It really says there is something here that perhaps deserves investigation," he said. "But it's a big jump to go from this lump in your hand to say, 'There's a big problem here.'"
Michael Ahrens, a biology professor at the University of Bogota, Jorge Tadeo Lozano, also reviewed information about coal dust's water impacts while a scholar at New Zealand's National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research Ltd. He worked for a port authority assessing environmental impacts of a proposed coal terminal.
"They just wanted us to do a review on the potential environmental impacts of unburned coal on the marine environment," Ahrens said in an interview from Bogota, Colombia. "The motivation is quite similar to what's going on in the United States."
Ahrens' paper and de Place's review show a connection between coal dust and negative impacts on salmon and other aquatic animals. But the data is largely inconclusive, they say.
Ahrens said coal can contain harmful materials, but he stressed the differences between rocks from different basins. "There would be difference in its potential to release acid and its potential to release metals," he said.
On coal's toxicity on animals, he called the evidence "very meager."
"It's hard," he said, "to actually limit your conclusions just to the leachates or the compounds contained in the coal."
Research has also found coal dust accumulations on the ocean floor near coal export facilities. Ahrens said negative impacts to aquatic life may not necessarily stem from chemical releases.
"It's not the coal, it's just the fact that you are dumping material that doesn't belong there," he said. "It can lead to impacts if it's not managed well."
Alaska court ruling
Dust is at issue in U.S. District Court in Alaska, where the Sierra Club and other groups are suing against dust releases from the Seward terminal into Resurrection Bay.
In their 2009 complaint, the groups cited "illegal discharges of coal and coal debris to Resurrection Bay in violation of the Clean Water Act."
Judge Timothy Burgess ruled last month that the "coal discharges are not specifically prohibited by the General Permit and that they were adequately disclosed to and reasonably anticipated by EPA."
Airborne dust from terminal machinery making its way to the water, Burgess said, did not qualify as "point sources" -- usually referring to discharges from waste pipes at power plants, sewage treatment plants and other industrial facilities -- under the Clean Water Act.
"Consequently, the Seward Facility's coal piles, stacker-reclaimer, and railcar unloader, no matter how easily they are identified as the original sources of coal dust blown into the Bay," he wrote, "cannot by themselves constitute 'point sources' where there is no 'discernible, confined and discrete conveyance' of the dust from those sources to the water."
The judge did not rule on dust or coal debris from trains outside the Seward terminal affecting the water, a key point of contention in the debate over Pacific Northwest coal exports. Other aspects of the litigation are ongoing.
But what about the impact on air quality?
University of Washington, Bothell, professor Dan Jaffe is collecting information on train dust and air pollution.
"When I looked around, I found that we really didn't know much about the coal dust," Jaffe said in an interview last year, noting how there is more science on smaller particles like diesel exhaust (Greenwire, Oct. 12, 2012).
The Multnomah County, Ore., Health Department prepared a report on the potential impacts of coal dust from increased coal traffic in the area, but it also called for more research.
"Cadmium, which can be present in coal dust, has been found to contribute to risk for lung and nasal cancer," it said. "However, an expert panel convened by the World Health Organization in 1997 found no conclusive link between coal dust and cancer."
East Coast terminals
Operators of East Coast terminals tout federal and state policies that require them to control airborne coal dust by watering down coal piles.
Consol Energy Inc.'s CNX Marine Terminal in Baltimore, for example, then treats the water to prevent runoff into the harbor, a potential violation (Greenwire, June 29, 2012).
In southeastern Virginia, a 2007 study published in the journal Water, Air and Soil Pollution in 2007 found that coal dust contributed to arsenic contamination in soil around terminals in Norfolk and Newport News, but the authors said health consequences were likely minor and couldn't quantify environmental problems.
"We have air permits for the Newport News terminals and the Norfolk terminals, and there are requirements to be in compliance with the permits and we inspect them regularly," said John Brandt, the regional air compliance chief for the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.
"Right now I don't have anything out of compliance. If somebody calls me with a complaint, that's how I deal with it," he said. "I would send an inspector out, check their dust monitors, check their permitting."
Brandt said dust complaints aren't rare, but it's often hard to pin down the source of pollution when the coal terminals under his watch are amid numerous other industrial facilities.
When it comes to potential water pollution, he noted the many sources of dust and soot, including tire fragments from area bridges.
"We've never seen fish kills or excess turbidity that anyone can trace to coal dust," he said.
Clarification: This story was updated to reflect that the ruling in the Alaska litigation did not involve coal dust from trains outside the Seward Coal Loading Facility.
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