State regulators press Alaska Railroad to curb spread of coal dust near Seward

Posted: Wednesday, September 19, 2007

ANCHORAGE - The Alaska Railroad is proposing inadequate measures to prevent black dust from spreading from its Seward coal-loading facility across the picturesque seaside town, state regulators said Tuesday.

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"We just don't agree with their assessment that what they are currently doing meets the criteria of reasonable precautions," said Bob Morgan of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, which cited the state-owned railroad for two emissions violations last spring. The agency has given the railroad a deadline today to submit more details of dust controls at the 34-acre facility 75 miles south of Anchorage.

"(The railroad) is in the business of shipping coal," regulators said in a Sept. 4 letter. "As such the ADEC expects (the railroad) to use reasonable coal handling, transport and storage precautions."

Regulators cited the railroad after fielding complaints from scores of residents. Locals say coal exposure has been a low-level problem there since the loading facility was established in the mid-1980s. But it was visibly worse last winter during a prolonged stretch of strong winds and dry weather that caused a heavier dusting over the popular tourist town, choking the air and covering boats with a sooty film.

According to the violations of state air quality regulations, the railroad did not take reasonable precautions to control fugitive emissions and allowed pollution that's harmful to health and properties.

Railroad officials said improvements have been made since the April notice of violation and their response will outline more clearly the measures taken. In its coming response to the DEC, the railroad also will include a proposal to meet with regulators in Seward, "so they can see for themselves the improvements made," railroad spokeswoman Wendy Lindskoog said.

Coal from the Usibelli Coal Mine in Healy is stockpiled in piles of up to 45,000 tons, then loaded onto ships by conveyor at the north end of the city. The railroad, which acquired the loading facility in 2003, moves the coal in trainloads carrying as much as 7,000 tons.

In their investigation, DEC regulators found the facility was equipped with spray bars to reduce dust, but those were not being used in freezing temperatures.

The railroad was originally given a May deadline for developing a long-term plan for keeping the dust from drifting away from the site, then got an August extension.

In its Aug. 3 response to the DEC, the railroad said it had hired dust control experts, implemented several improvements and planned to do more in coming months. Those improvements include repairing or replacing equipment seals and dust control covers and installing additional spray bars that can be used year round, said Steve Denton, general manager of operator Aurora Energy Services.

The railroad also noted that the weather conditions last winter "presented a severe and unique weather pattern that had no precedent."

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