The Alaska Railroad Corp. is taking steps to reduce coal dust that for years has dirtied the scenic tourist town of Seward.
The state-owned railroad and Aurora Energy Services have reached an agreement with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation to install measures to control the coal dust that residents say flies from huge piles of coal at the loading facility next to the harbor.
The railroad has agreed to pay a fine of nearly $220,000, with much of that money going toward the cost of mitigation measures. Those include installing multiple high-pressure spray bars to keep dust down, and sealing and adding a misting system inside the coal chute.
The railroad and Aurora, which is an affiliate of the Usibelli coal mine near Healy, also are required to maintain the new mitigation systems and to monitor all ship loading, railcar unloading and stockpile activities at the coal terminal. The DEC's compliance order also sets in place quicker procedures for public complaints.
The order stems from two alleged violations in 2007 and 2008. The railroad, which acknowledges no wrongdoing, said it has had no violations since, it has improved its coal-loading processes and it signed the compliance order to focus on future operations.
Two environmental groups sued last year to get the railroad to fix the dust problem. The mitigation measures will be in place by the year's end.
While the measures are good, they don't go far enough to protect the health of residents breathing the dust daily, said Russ Maddox, who has lived in Seward since 1981 and is working with the Alaska Center for the Environment on coal dust issues in the state.
The two instances that led to the alleged violations were unusual in their severity, Maddox said. Both times the dust formed a big black cloud that covered the harbor, he said.
But that doesn't mean there isn't a problem with coal dust in Seward all the time, Maddox said Friday.
"I feel these are minimal controls," he said.
The problem with using water to keep down dust in cold climes is that it creates problems when it freezes on the conveyer belt, Maddox said. The coal dust also mixes with the water to become a muddy clump that falls to the ground when the conveyer belt switches direction, he said.
Maddox said the real solution is to install bag houses. They would operate like huge vacuums and could remove 99 percent of the dust, he said.
Water taxi operator Louis Garding said the piles of coal are an eyesore that hurts the town's reputation as a tourist destination. Seward is a gateway city for tours of the Kenai Fjords National Park shoreline, a popular port for fishing charters and a major cruise-ship port.
Most of his passengers ask about the facility and when he explains what it is they have a negative reaction, Garding said.
At the very least, the coal-loading facility and the railcars should be enclosed, he said.
Ultimately, he would like to see the entire thing disappear.
"I am definitely in favor of alternative energy. I would like to see coal abolished," he said.