What Coal Dust Looks Like in Alaska

Photos taken nears a coal terminal in Seward.
This post is part of the research project: Northwest Coal & Oil Exports

We’ve already seen how coal dust looks near export terminals at Point Roberts and Prince Rupert, British Columbia. Now let’s take a gander at the export facility at Seward, Alaska.

As a 2010 article in the Anchorage Daily News calls it:

When the north wind blows in Seward, dust flies off a large pile of coal and covers the town’s scenic boat harbor in black grit.

Photos make the problem clear. Courtesy of the good folks at Resurrection Bay Conservation Alliance, here are four photos of coal dust in and around the Seward Harbor.





Spurred in part by a citizen’s lawsuit, the coal operator has been making costly upgrades since around 2003. According to the ADN:

More than $1 million has been spent on safety, operation and environmental improvements since the railroad took over six years ago, she said.

Among them: seals on openings to control dust, dust-control bars along the conveyor belts and stacker reclaimer, a new transfer chute on the ship loader to minimize incidental spillage, skirting along the ship loader belt and ensuring the dust-control system works in freezing weather.

Yet according to many citizens, coal dust continues to plague Seward. Here’s ADN again:

Litmans, the Trustees for Alaska attorney, said when the wind blows from the north, plumes of coal dust rise off the pile and settle on the water. When the coal is scooped up off the pile and loaded onto the conveyor belt, more dust is put into the air. Even more dust is generated when the coal is loaded onto ships.

Besides the dust, coal chunks fall off the conveyor belt and into the bay, he said.

On some level the problem is actually a fairly basic one: containing coal dust is hard. There is a good reason why coal dust complaints are commonplace in communities near coal stockpiles. (See, just for a few quick examples in the US, Floyd County, Kentucky; Roda, Virginia; Madison, Wisconsin; Mobile, Alabama; Newport News, Virginia; and Mountaintop, Pennsylvania.)

Many coal operators shirk their responsibility to local communities and avoid doing much to control the spread of dust. Yet dust can be very difficult to capture, particularly in windy conditions. In fact, as one study in Canada aptly put it: “coal terminals by their nature are active sources of fugitive dust.” It’s not exactly a cheery thought, but it appears to be largely true. [Ed. note: this paragraph was edited on 1.27.12]

More photos of coal dust in Seward are available at the Resurrection Bay Conservation Alliance website, as well as at the Coal Diver website. And even more photos of Seward’s coal dust probelm at this Sierra Club webpage and at Ground Truth Trekking.

It ain’t pretty.


Thanks to Kathy Washienko for her invaluable research assistance. All photos in this post are courtesy of Russ Maddox, Resurrection Bay Conservation Alliance, and are used with permission.


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  1. Darren says:

    Have you used a few DustBoss machines and the DustBoss rings that are mounted at the end of the conveyor? See http://www.dustboss.com

  2. Tim Sczawinski says:

    A reminder to those who care. If you can see coal dust, as in these photos, you the observer are already in some danger. It is the invisible microscopic particles that get in you lungs and never come out. Get enough in your lungs and it is called black lung disease and you do not need to be a coal miner or be involved in the industry to get it. Sometimes just living or working downwind is enough. The very young the elderly and those with chronic lung problems are effected first and worst. Hundreds live directly downwind of the Seward coal loading facility…

  3. Erin says:

    Thanks for highlighting the problems in Seward. There are a variety of new coal mine proposals in the works in Alaska. If these go through, there is only more of this to come.

  4. Sam Broach says:

    I am president of a local grassroots organization called Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards. Our group and other local citizens of the effected communities, like Roda Virginia, have been suffering under the coal dust problem for years now. We all went to the Air Pollution Control Board and to DEQ to tell our stories about how bad it was and still is here. The dust is so bad at times you can’t see across the street. We can’t sit on our porches anymore or let our children play in the yard because the dust is so bad. Our houses and cars are covered with dust all the time. It does no good to wash them because the next day it’s back like it was before. The hearings that we went to caused the coal companys to put a few truck washers in place but we have pictures of the truck drivers just driving around them and not useing them at all. Two street sweepers were purchased to keep the dust down in the communities but they are making things worse. They sweep the streets and stir up the dust and then wash it off the roads only to run into the streams polluting them too. We need regulations put in place to MAKE them do better with the dust. But that’s not happen right now either because out political leaders, from the bottom to the top are bought off by the coal companies. But we continue to fight literally for our lives here in Southwest Virginia. Cancer rates, asthma, and other resperitory diseases are trippled to what they are in non-coal producing states. Our children are sick and no one seems to care. Just keep getting that coal. I noticed that the one who wrote the article said that not much can be done but that’s not true. Something can be done if our leaders will put laws in place and make them control the dust. I call on all the citizens there to stand up for your community, for you neighbors, for you home, your childrens lives, and your own lives and tell them that if they can’t control it then STOP it. Our fight here continues and we will not back down. Jobs are not more important than lives.

    • Sandra Davis says:

      Sam, thank you so much for your comment. It means a lot of hear from people who are experiencing coal dust and having no luck getting officials to listen or act. Your last sentence is what moved me the most to respond to you. With this economy, all we hear in Longview, Washington is that “we need the jobs.” These few coal jobs will cause the loss of other jobs and the loss of new businesses. It is very hard to get people to listen, but we continue to speak out. I wish you luck in Virginia.

  5. Maria says:

    This is so sad, Seward is such a charming, lovely little town. At least, it was in the early 90s when I visited.

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