The dust up over coal
The issue of coal dust in South Delta has been blowing around for a long time.
Delta councillor and farmer Ian Paton says he remembers as a kid running to the tracks to watch the first coal train rolling toward the brand new Westshore Terminals.
“The first thing we noticed was this black haze of dust coming off of each coal car as they roared through Delta on their final phase of getting to the Roberts Bank coal port,” he says.
Westshore opened in 1970 in Roberts Bank, one of the most ecologically important estuaries on the west coast of North America. The facility is a 96-hectare man-made island situated at the end of a 4.8 kilometre causeway serviced by a 20-metre deep dredged waterlot.
Paton believes coal dust from the facility is still a problem in Delta and he’s not alone.
Coal dust complaints have come as far afield as Point Roberts, and residents have complained seeing coal dust escaping the piles from the terminal in high winds, as well as the conveyor belts and returning empty trains. Paton says he used to keep his leisure boat in the Riverhouse marina but this year decided to move it to Point Roberts. Before he did, he says people warned him he would have to clean coal dust from his boat.
“Sure enough, every time we went down to the boat each weekend, there would be this very fine film of black coal dust on the boat and you’d have to take a hose and wash it off. I thought I was dreaming but it’s really true.”
Paton says when there’s a wind from the northwest it collects coal dust from the port and deposits particles in southern Tsawwassen’s English Bluff and Point Roberts.
“You can imagine that the very fine black particles of coal dust, as the train is going through Delta or other agricultural parts of the Fraser Valley, that stuff has got to be settling on our crops,” says Paton.
Denis Horgan, general manager at Westshore Terminals, appeared before council on Monday (Jan. 14) to explain their efforts toward coal dust mitigation.
“This year has been a long, hot and dry summer which lasted into October… it pinpointed to us that there were weaknesses in our system that needed addressing,” Horgan told council.
Westshore’s dust suppression plan is governed by Metro Vancouver, which issues an air quality permit. Railcars are sprayed with a latex-water mix while roads around the terminal are sprayed with magnesium chloride. The company employs 77 ground level rain guns that will soon be replaced by 96 new units with valve control stations, a fog cannon, and six new “Big Bertha” water spray towers at the west end of the site. Westshore will spend $7 million on those upgrades.
Horgan says that owing to the peculiar wind patterns of the region, coal dust drift to Point Roberts can be a problem. It’s an issue Horgan says is unacceptable, but adds it isn’t harmful.
“There’s a lot of misinformation around coal. Coal is a naturally-occurring mineral. It is not toxic.”
Horgan says he’s never heard of any adverse health effects of coal dust from long-term workers at the terminal. He says the perception of coal workers are people working in underground mines and confined spaces without any ventilation when health becomes a factor.
Westshore takes the allegations of harmful coal dust seriously. David Crook, manager of engineering and environmental services for Westshore Terminals, has been examining samples brought in by residents for decades and coal is rarely the culprit.
Using a powerful electron microscope, he has found materials are usually a combination of organic materials ranging from agricultural materials and diesel particles to fungus growth.
It’s tough to convince people that black residue isn’t coal dust because it’s a battle of perception, wrote Crook in a 1998 publication called The News Breaker.
“People see the coal piles and know the trains roll by every day and it is easy to see how the perception is that coal dust is the culprit.
“This is typically the type of result we get when we received complaints and put samples to analysis.”
Perception is often a key problem for Westshore. When their causeway was taken out by a coal freighter in a Dec. 7 shipping accident, aerial photos from media seemed to show a film of coal dust spilling into the ocean.
In fact, what people were seeing was the artificial reef created by Port Metro Vancouver as part of environmental mitigation plans for marine life.
An air quality study conducted in 2003 by the Greater Vancouver Regional District (now Metro Vancouver) after complaints from residents determined that inhaled particles of coal dust were well below the most stringent health requirement standards.
Air samplers set up at three locations in Tsawwassen found that coal dust makes up less than one per cent of all dust content, and was consistent with air quality measurements taken in other GVRD communities.
That study revealed most black coal-like substances put under a microscope were actually “carbonaceous particles” most likely from wood burning, or else mould, pollen, or topsoil.
Gasoline and diesel emissions from vehicles still constitutes the greatest levels of air pollution, according to the study. One theory of combating the problem is to plant more trees that absorb carbon emissions.
A UBC study conducted by Ryan Johnson and R.M. Bustin of coal dust in the marine environment around the Westshore marine terminal between 1977 and 1999 revealed the concentration of coal particles “increased substantially” from a mean concentration of 1.8 per cent to 3.6 per cent over the 22-year period. The study noted, however, that the dispersal distance of coal had not increased, only the abundance of coal in the existing sediment.