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ANCHORAGE - The Alaska Railroad failed to prevent unacceptable levels of sooty dust at its Seward coal loading center from drifting across the seaside town, regulators said this week after investigating complaints from scores of residents.
"I think everyone can agree this is the worst year ever," said Bob Morgan of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. The agency cited the state-owned railroad for two emissions violations following an inspection of the 34-acre facility 75 miles south of Anchorage.
Residents say coal exposure has been a low-level problem since the mid-1980s. That's when coal began being stockpiled, then loaded onto ships by conveyor at the north end of the picturesque tourist town, which had an estimated 336,000 visitors last year, including thousands of cruise ship passengers.
The railroad acquired the coal facility in 2003. The railroad builds up a coal pile of 30,000 to 40,000 tons, moving in a trainload carrying as much as 7,000 tons every two or three days.
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But for about six weeks this winter - just as a new contract operator was stepping in - strong winds and a long dry spell caused a heavier dusting that settled on boats and parking lots and was visible in the air, according to locals. The coal itself also was drier because of arid conditions in Alaska's interior, where the Usibelli Coal Mine in Healy is located.
"It's the worst I've seen, absolutely the worst, without a doubt," said 18-year resident Ron Long, operations manager for Renown Tours, a local charter boat company.
"Mother Nature was very unforgiving," said Mark Mitchell, head of the railroad's health, safety and environmental division.
After receiving numerous residential complaints, DEC regulators launched an investigation in late February and found the facility had filters called baghouses and spray bars to reduce dust, but the "spray bars are not used in freezing temperatures and the baghouses have not been operated," regulators said in their three-page citation.
"The railroad stated the baghouse units are not used because they are poorly engineered and often generate more dust," regulators wrote in an inspection report. "Water supplied spray bars are located ahead of transfer points; however in the fall, before freeze-up, the spray bars are removed and placed in storage."
The violations of state air quality regulations say the railroad failed to take reasonable precautions to control fugitive emissions and allowed pollution that's harmful to health and properties.
The railroad was ordered to take immediate steps to cut down on the dust, which has since been quelled by rains. The state imposed a May 15 deadline for a long-term plan for reducing emissions.
Railroad officials said future solutions could include replacing equipment with improved technology if economically feasible. Another possibility is spraying the coal with nontoxic compounds, said Steve Denton, general manager of operator Aurora Energy Services. Immediate measures include spraying the coal with water and holding up trains during windy conditions.
The railroad also has created a task force involving Aurora and Seward residents in response to the problem. The task force held its first meeting last week.
"The high wind event was an opportunity for us to dig in deeper," said Ernie Piper, the railroad's head of safety and operations. "We want to get to a state of good repair that's acceptable to the community."
The DEC response represents progress in a statewide effort from several environmental groups, said Russ Maddox, a board member of the Resurrection Bay Conservation Alliance, a citizen group in Seward. Maddox and others have lobbied the state for two years to tighten and better define the "reasonable precautions" measurement used in such pollution cases.
"I'm cautiously optimistic," Maddox said. "I've been through the process with fugitive dust cases in the past and I frankly don't have a lot of faith of the system. But I'm hoping the location and public awareness will elevate this issue and allow it to be taken care of expeditiously."