Coal Dust in South Africa

Lessons from the world's largest coal export terminal.
This post is part of the research project: Northwest Coal Exports

South Africa is a major coal exporter and home to the world’s largest coal export terminal, located at Richards Bay on the country’s east coast. It’s no secret that the coal terminal is a major source of local pollution. As one academic journal article characterizes the situation:

The coal operations, which include stockpiles, shunting, conveyor belts and shiploading, create dust which is a major problem in the harbour and surrounding areas as it tends to coat all exposed surfaces.

Not surprisingly, the study’s authors find that the coal dust harms the area’s mangrove trees and related ecosystems. They note:

Dust on the undersurface of leaves is not removed by wind, rain, or even physical washing. The undersurface of the leaves, as well as the rough surfaces of twigs, branches and trunk, tend to accumulate dust and appear black.

Coal dust contamination in the area is so widespread and well-known that even the Richards Bay Coal Terminal (RBCT) company acknowledges there’s a problem. In it’s 2006 Annual Report:

RBCT commissioned Annergan Environmental Research to conduct an environmental study on the impact of coal dust at the Zululand Yacht Club in the Richards Bay Small Craft Marina. Results indicated that RBCT was one of the contributing dust factors at the Yacht Club.

Indeed, a quick Google search confirms that coal dust is a recurring nuisance for local boat owners, even those located several miles away, testament to the fact that the terminal’s dust is often in the air and water.

Here’s a sample log book entry by one boat owner:

The UGLY is that the coal dust that falls on the boats here is horrible, especially when there are SW winds with no rain like yesterday and today. On Sunday afternoon when a neighbor loaned us his hose, we used the water to wash off all the salt and Windbird was squeaky clean. Today she is dusted in a fine black powder that runs like mud when water is applied. Yuck! But we just have to deal with it by getting to a dock where we can easily attach our own hose and constantly wash down the boat, especially the canvas. We thought Cochin’s [India] air was dirty, but it doesn’t even compare to this.

Here’s another:

WED 24 NOV… This afternoon local storms visit again, bringing with them the ubiquitous Richards Bay coal dust that settles over every part of the boat.

FRI 26 NOV… When we went to bed the wind was still howling in the rigging, the black coal dust swirling in the air.

Yet the problems of coal dust contamination are hardly confined to recreational boaters.

The economic consequences are well highlighted by Mercedes Benz’s vocal opposition to a new coal export terminal planned for East London, South Africa. With hundreds of millions of dollars in recent investments in manufacturing facilities there, company officials warn that a coal terminal would jeopardize its presence in the community and put it’s 2,400 jobs at risk:

Zimmerman indicated that pollutants in the air which can be caused by the loading and off-loading of coal at the terminal, could impact on the quality achievable.

He said “We couldn’t have that type of pollution. We can’t handle it in the paintshop.”

The question South Africa is facing is similar to the one the Northwest is facing: is exporting coal worth the risk?

As Richards Bay locals well know, where there are coal terminals, there tends to be coal dust. Often, there’s a lot of it. See, for example, Alaska, northern British Columbia, southern British Columbia, Louisiana, South Carolina, Virginia, Australia, and India.

 Thanks to Kathy Washienko for research assistance.

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