The quality of the air is an old discussion for downtown residents, but since the Mobile Planning Commission approved plans for the city’s second coal terminal in late March, that talk is dusting up yet again.
The Blue Creek Coal Terminal is slated to sit on 36.6 acres on the banks of the Mobile River. The facility is projected to house 360,000 tons of coal in two 80-to-90-foot piles when it reaches maximum capacity and will process 6.5 million tons annually. The discussions about a new coal terminal have residents near the river talking once again about what coal means to the community.
What Blue Creek is proposing is far less than the 2 million tons currently stored at the Alabama State Port Authority’s McDuffie Coal Terminal, which is one of the largest coal terminals in the United States. McDuffie handles coal but doesn’t process it, other than to mix two types of material on occasion.
Over the years many residents in historic downtown neighborhoods like Church Street East, Oakleigh and DeTonti Square have complained about coal dust on their homes, which they claim has come from McDuffie and the former Mobile River Terminal (MRT).
“When I first moved in in 2002 I heard a lot of complaints from neighbors about coal dust, and they turned out to be true,” said Marie Dyson, who lives on Dearborn Street. “We all have to power wash our houses three to five times each year.”
In 2007, test samples from five houses throughout the Church Street East area were sent to a lab in Chicago, and all of the samples contained between 15-40 percent coal dust, with 20 percent being the average.
“Both companies pointed the finger at each other,” Dyson said. “Eventually, MRT went out of business and McDuffie said they would improve their misting cannons and other equipment to try to combat airborne emissions.”
Since 1999 the facility has spent nearly $9.5 million improving its dust control measures, according to Alabama State Port Authority CEO Jimmy Lyons. He said there is also $700,000 budgeted for additional improvements in fiscal year 2014.
In additional to mechanical improvements, McDuffie is working to increase the optimization of its automated weather and moisture monitoring systems and taking air and dust samples of its own.
“We’ve done sampling for years starting back when this issue first surfaced. If there is dust getting off the island, it is a very minor amount,” Lyons said. “Our sampling is an ongoing effort, but the goal is zero.”
In 2011, McDuffie took samples of four buildings in the Church Street East and Down the Bay neighborhoods and found coal and coke comprised 34 percent of residue on structures that had not been cleaned, Lyons said. In 2012, a study in the same area on buildings cleaned six months prior found coal and coke comprised 10 percent of residue on those structures.
These dust control and water recycling standards are reviewed when McDuffie renews its air and water permits through the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM). Walter Energy, the parent company of Blue Creek, has already received air and water permits from ADEM based on a comprehensive emission and storm water reduction plan.
“The biggest factor is wind suppression. You want to keep (coal) materials sufficiently moist so they don’t become airborne, which typically happens when the materials are transferred,” ADEM Spokesperson Scott Hughes said.
Though Blue Creek is still at least five years from being operational, Walter Energy currently has an air permit issued April 18, 2011 and water permit issued May 24, 2013.
Blue Creek’s dust suppression plan is multifaceted and is projected by the company to control 96 percent of the facility’s emissions. Like McDuffie, it is based primarily on keeping coal wet with a surfactant or crusting agent when it is being stored or transferred through any uncovered area.
“The design we’re proposing to use is really taking the best of what people have learned about control measures and incorporating them into a new facility,” Tom Hoffman, vice president of communications for Walter Energy said. “When you look at these big terminals up in Virginia, there really isn’t anything comparable in size or in the age of the facility.”
According to Hoffman, there isn’t a coal terminal that comprises all of the technology the facility would utilize, which is why its dust-control capability are based off of emission projections.
“We’re starting from scratch in terms of the equipment that will handle the coal,” Hoffman said. “In addition to being new, the site is going to be a lot more efficient.”
Walter Energy paid to have a study conducted by Enviroplan Consulting, which concluded Blue Creek’s environmental footprint would have little effect on the air quality of Mobile County as whole.
The study focused on the effects of particulate matter, which is defined by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as solid or liquid particles found in the air. Particular matter (PM) emissions can come from a multitude of sources, and can cause adverse health effects in humans depending on the level of exposure. PM-10 is a particle with a diameter of 10 micrometers or less, which is one-seventh the width of a human hair.
The EPA’s air quality standard for particulate matter of that size is 50 micrograms per cubic centimeter based off of a yearly average or 150 micrograms per cubic centimeter measured as a daily concentration.
In theory, Blue Creek will meet those standards based on the Enviroplan study, which projected Blue Creek would only account for 0.005 percent of PM-10 emissions in Mobile County when it is operational. However, those estimated contributions were based on a total throughout all of Mobile County, an area significantly larger than the downtown area that has been traditionally affected by coal dust.
“We did our research and found a group of citizens in West Virginia that sued Massey Energy and won, which required the company to put a dome on their coal,” Dyson said. “That’s what we were shooting for with McDuffie and MRT, but we were told it was not cost effective.”
The citizens involved in the recent debate proposed the same idea and got the same answer.
Walter Energy estimated it would cost between $40-60 million to construct a dome structure for the Blue Creek site, and coupled with the additional dust control measures, the dome could cost more than $85 million per ton of dust controlled.
CST Covers Industries, Inc. builds domes all over the world, with much of its business coming from smog-riddled countries like India and China where domes are now required.
“There are hundreds if not thousands of domed facilities elsewhere in the world, but not many in the U.S.,” CST’s global business manager of bulk material storage Kari Kauppi said. “The regulators have talked about it, but there’s just too much lobbying power.”
Kauppi said covered facilities get rid of all emissions, but the price is often a matter of size and local costs. He estimated it would cost around $3-$4 million to build a dome large enough to cover 150,000 metric tons of coal, and additional equipment inside of the dome could bring the overall costs up to more than $10 million.
The added cost of chemicals and water is another continuing expense, not to mention the purchasing and upkeep of the misting cannons used to disperse surfactants. Kauppi also said keeping the coal moist reduces heating power. McDuffie is budgeted to spend nearly $430,000 this year on water alone. Because the facility isn’t yet operational, there’s no simple way of determining what the cost of Blue Creek’s dust suppression technology will be.
Hoffman said the cost and means of meeting environmental standards shouldn’t matter, as long as those standards are met. Those standards are currently being met, but as more detailed plans are developed, ADEM will have to reissue air water permits to Walter Energy based on the new information.
The Blue Creek property, which is in Mobile’s “I-2” or heavy industrial zone, was acquired when Walter Energy purchased MRT in 2010. Since then, Walter Energy has also purchased a second and larger piece of land in the I-2 zone, but the company has stated several times they have no plans for the property at this time.
The Mobile City Council is set to hear appeals from several organizations and potentially affected neighborhoods on April 22. Mayor Sandy Stimpson is scheduled to meet with officials from Walter Energy and from the Port of Mobile this week to discuss the project.
“When it comes to industrial development, I try to determine if the risk justifies the reward,” Stimpson said. “Based on everything I’ve seen to this point, the company has met or exceeded all of its permitting requirements and the project appears to be an appropriate use of the site. I see no reason to intervene in the process as long as it is working as it should.”
Stimpson did say he has heard the complaints from downtown residents and will address the coal dust issue during his scheduled meetings. As for Church Street East, Dyson said she’s seen some improvement in the amount of dust, but there’s still a big concern over adding more coal to the area.
“I know my neighbors and me still have to power wash our houses, but there’s been some improvement,” she said. “That’s a hard question to answer scientifically.”