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By Shane Lasley
Mining News 

Greens threaten Seward coal dust suit

Environmental groups' law firm plans to sue Usibelli affiliate and Alaska railroad for alleged clean water violations in Seward


Last updated 11/22/2009 at Noon

Three environmental groups - Sierra Club Alaska Chapter, Alaska Center for the Environment and Alaska Community Action on Toxics - have threatened to file a lawsuit against Alaska Railroad Corp. and Usibelli Coal Mines affiliate, Aurora Energy Services LLC, over unpermitted discharges of coal at the Seward coal loading facility.

"A lack of adequate pollution controls at the facility has resulted in ongoing dumping of coal debris into Resurrection Bay and uncontrolled blowing coal dust, damaging water quality in the Bay and threatening the tourism industry it supports," the environmental groups wrote in an Oct. 29 statement.

Though many of the conservation groups' contentions and media attention have centered on the airborne and terrestrial effects of the coal dust, the looming legal action is concerned with violations of the federal Clean Water Act.

"We talk a lot about the airborne pollutants because those are the ones that have the human health impacts, and are also an issue, but they haven't really been quantified yet. As opposed to the coal that actually you can see it falling into the water if you watch a ship being loaded," Sierra Club Alaska Associate Regional Representative Emily Fehrenbacher told Mining News.

60 day notice

Trustees for Alaska, an environmental law firm representing the three conservation groups, has given the Alaska Railroad and Aurora Energy 60 days to acquire a federal permit.

"They need to obtain a permit under the Clean Water Act, Section 402 that provides for the discharge of coal into Resurrection Bay," Trustees for Alaska Attorney Brian Litmans told Mining News.

When asked whether the potential defendants could obtain the required federal permit in time to avoid litigation, Litmans said, "They may be able to get it in the time period, or at least start the process. Then there would be an opportunity for public comment."

"We would certainly follow the actions closely before making any decisions as to whether we felt we needed to proceed in any way," he added.

To avoid legal action the Usibelli coal transporters also must take measures to limit "unpermitted discharges of coal from the facility."

Fehrenbacher and Litmans were unable to provide specific mitigation measures or benchmarks that would prevent the environmental groups from proceeding with legal action.

"I think that it is probably premature to identify specific measures, but ultimately we would be asking that they use the measures that other coal facilities use," Litmans said.

Significant improvements

Aurora Energy Services Environmental Manager Bartly Coiley told Mining News that the Seward ship-loading facility is a much cleaner operation than when Aurora Energy took over operations at the facility in January 2007.

Coiley said Aurora Energy and the Alaska Railroad have spent more than US$1 million on improving the boat-loading facility over the past two years. Much of the money was spent on repairing the inoperable dust-control spray bars, repairs and maintenance to the conveyor belts and other environmental measures at the 25-year-old ship-loading facility.

The Sierra Club Alaska representative agrees that improvements have been made at the Seward facility.

"They have made significant improvements recently," Fehrenbacher told Mining News.

"Six years ago, the railroad made some improvements, but they are still not helping the problem," the Sierra Club Alaska representative quickly amended.

Coiley said Aurora Energy has dust monitoring equipment around the facility and if mitigation measures are not working, the company shuts down ship loading, paying for the ship to sit in the harbor until conditions improve and loading can be resumed.

"We have a standard operating procedure that if we are not able to control dust, we shut down," Coiley said.

The Alaska Railroad transports coal mined at Usibelli's operations near Healy to the Seward Terminal, and Coiley said the same policy holds whether a ship is being loaded or a train is being unloaded.

"The Alaska Railroad and AES have definitely demonstrated a commitment to environmental stewardship. Quite frankly, the facility is far better today than it ever has been," the Aurora Energy environmental manager said.


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