Australia’s Coal Dust Problem

Cause for concern at Northwest ports?
This post is part of the research project: Northwest Coal & Oil Exports
yewenyi, flickr

yewenyi, flickr

Those concerned about coal dust from export terminals in the Northwest might do well to cast an eye Down Under. Australia is currently the world’s leading coal exporter, and therefore provides an instructive lesson in the ways that transporting and handling of large volumes of coal can affect nearby communities.

Several places in Australia have experienced serious problems with coal dust from railways and export terminals. Here’s how the coal transport industry describes the problem:

Across Australia, dust from trains carrying coal and iron ore is a persistent problem. For residents next to a rail track in the Bowen Basin or Hunter Valley it can, on the worst days, mean dust obscuring windows, dirtying washing and penetrating homes…

And in another article, the same trade journal says:

Ever since trains have been used to transport coal, fugitive dust has been a source of complaints from communities near the rail lines.

Remember, that’s not the perspective of greens or community members. That’s the industry talking.

To be fair, though, that second article also alleges that mitigation measures have reduced coal dust problems by 50 to 90 percent along the particularly dust-plagued route from the Callide region coal mines to Gladstone, a major coal export region on Australia’s east coast.

Yet despite the improvements the shippers claim, coal dust is apparently still a serious problem in Gladstone.

The Queensland government admits that coal dust from trains exceeds air quality standards in the Gladstone area. Yet newspaper accounts paint a more startling picture.

Here’s the Gladstone Observer:

BLACK coal dust is back in Gladstone homes as coal supplies return back to normal at the Barney Point Coal Terminal.

For the past month Gladstone residents have been breathing a little easier and doing less cleaning as coal supplies dried up at Barney Point due to floodwaters inundating coal mines across Central Queensland.

No coal supplies for many residents has meant cleaner benches and window sills, however, coal production has ramped up over the past week with the opening of the Blackwater rail line and, as a consequence, so has the coal dust.

Gladstone local Paul Tooker told the Observer that after some weeks of no coal dust due to the flooding, coal dust returned in earnest last Monday.

“We have now returned to the situation where my wife has to wipe down all surfaces a number of times a day to remove the coal dust,” Mr Tooker said.

And here’s the Observer again, this time describing the costs of mitigating coal dust:

THE QUEENSLAND Government’s commitment to pour millions of dollars into combating dust emissions was music to the McDonalds’ ears.

Modifications to the ship loading facilities at the Auckland Point terminals will also be made as part of the project.

After years of controversy surrounding coal dust emissions, the Gladstone Marina residents said they were glad the people’s concerns were being recognised.

Earlier this year, the port vowed to invest more than $10 million to minimise the impact of dust emissions after a damning report into the issue.

Yet Gladstone is hardly the only place in Australia with coal dust problems. A few hundred miles to the northwest, the communities around Mackay have also been affected by coal export terminals. A conservation group there argues that:

Fine hazardous coal particulate dust already settles from the Hay Point and Dalrymple Bay ports over Mackay at least as far north as Blacks Beach, 26km to the northwest. That amount of fine dust could now almost double once the Dudgeon Point coal terminal is online.

And local newspaper accounts, like this one, confirm the story:

BETTY Hobbs, of Louisa Creek, has been fighting coal dust for most of the 33 years she has lived in the beachside hamlet.

But she has not just battled to clean off the regular build-up of grime on her windows and floors, Ms. Hobbs has been fighting the source of the black dust, the nearby coal terminals.

There are many more stories of coal dust in Australia, but I think these provide at least a flavor of the problem there.

In the interest of fairness, I want to make something clear: I’m not suggesting that Australia’s worst coal dust problems would occur in exactly the same way at Northwest coal terminals. The two regions have different coals, climates, and would likely deploy different technologies. But I do think Australia’s experience underscores the legitimate concerns of nearby residents, particularly when considered in context with coal dust problems closer to home at ports in southern British Columbia, northern British Columbia, and Alaska.

Thanks for Kathy Washienko for research assistance.

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  1. canyonguy26 says:

    Why is this dust thing still being discussed? BNSF said they are to begin spraying the coal with an anti-dust coating. Also the new coal facility at Port Westward is to be covered…..

    • Eric de Place says:

      For at least three reasons:

      1. Coal export terminals are a major source of coal dust, as the examples from Australia clearly show.

      2. Because it is not at all clear that BNSF’s remedy will effectively treat coal dust.

      3. Because BNSF is not the only shipper and handler of coal.

  2. Betty Hobbs says:

    In the 1980’s the residents of Louisa Ceek in Qld were dealt a nasty blow with the construction of a coal export facility right next door. The noise and the dust we experienced at that time was horrendous
    The coal ports and even the rail company have made major input into containing their pollutants  with the use of water sprays and polymer veneering, so the coal we get settling on us is usually quite fine and not a nuisance until we go to sit down.  You can’t actually see it until it settles.  When it rains after a drought, the water can come down through the trees coloured black, and in the past has turned our swimming pool black overnight.  We had to fight hard for these reforms and now have a bigger battle on our hands with the proposed Dudgeon Point coal terminals which are around three times the size of the current terminals at Hay Point.  this will have the effect of sandwiching us in between them and land locking us as the new jetties will almost join and recreational boats will be unable to access open water.

    The new ports (including Abbot Point) will also up the number of bulk loaded ships coming through the Great Barrier Reef to over 6,000 per year, making a huge impact on the reef.

    To make matters worse the Port Authority (NQBP) have purchased most of the private properties We fought to have these properties put on the rental market, and this worked well for some years. Now they are sytematically demolishing them. Usually they claim there is asbestos or uneconomical repairs needed. They have also called in the local police claiming amongst other things that we had intentions of chaining ourselves to these houses. (Ourselves being 2 females over 60 years of age with mobility issues)

    We have requested to be allowed to see these houses before the demolition order is given, but have been refused. Something other communities can look forward to if they don’t get together and take on this dirty industry.

  3. Joanne says:

    The air quality is baddddddd

  4. Davy jones says:

    This is a mojor problem and must be stopped,,,,,

  5. Eric de Place says:

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