Seward Coal Terminal
Seward Coal Terminal, also referred to as the Seward Coal Loading Facility, is a coal terminal in Alaska. It was built in 1984, and exports coal from the Usibelli Coal Mine. It has an annual coal capacity of 1.5 million tonnes.
In August 2016 it was reported coal exports from the terminal will be suspended indefinitely until coal prices rebound.
The facility consists of a railroad spur, a variety of coal storage and handling and loading equipment, as well as a large dock. The Alaska Railroad purchased the facility in 2003 and has performed a variety of upgrades including an ongoing expansion of the coal storage areas in anticipation of increased coal exports from Alaska.
It was reported in September 2011 that the Usibelli Coal Mine was increasing coal production from 10,000 tonnes a year to 2 million tonnes a year. Much of the coal will be exported to Asian markets through Alaska's Port of Seward.
Environmental impacts of the coal port
The biggest environmental concern surrounding Seward Coal Terminal has been the release of potentially hazardous coal dust from the facility. Seward experiences strong north winds draining dry interior air out into the Gulf of Alaska that can dry and then suspend the coal particles. If dust escapes at a similar rate to what has been calculated in the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the loading facilities at the proposed Chuitna River mine, then around 500 tons of coal dust is released per year in Seward. The Coal Terminal facility possesses a dust collection system called a "baghouse" which could reduce particle release by an estimated 99%. However, this system has never been employed, is now defunct, and would cost approximately $1 million to replace. Another option for preventing coal dust release is to spray the coal with water, but this reduces the economic value of the coal by increasing the weight and moisture content.
In addition to having problems with windblown dust, coal dust falls into the ocean from the conveyor as it passes from land to ship (see photo below) In January 2010 a lawsuit was brought against the Alaska Railroad alleging that this dust violates the Clean Water Act. 
Coal dust became a prominent issue in Spring 2007 when a ship was loaded during high winds and large clouds of coal dust were released in the process. This dust exceeded air quality standards set by the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). Therefore the Alaska Railroad was issued with two citations regarding this incident. Since then the Alaska Railroad has spent $150,000 implementing new control measures for containing the dust, but still had dust release problems during high winds in January 2010. In June 2010, the DEC fined the Railroad $212,900 and the facility will be required to implement a variety of monitoring and mitagation procedures, as well as to pay the DEC for all costs associated with the ongoing investigation and enforcement. A multi-party lawsuit against the railroad is also proceeding through the courts and in January 2011 appeared set to go to trial.
Large coal stockpiles also carry the risk of spontaneous combustion causing coal fires deep within the piles. In order to avoid this, the coal must be regularly rotated to prevent the fires from spreading. "Hotspots" of smoldering coal embers can be regularly observed in the Seward stockpiles and can delay the loading of coal ships.
In December 2009 the Alaska Community Action on Toxics and the Alaska chapter of the Sierra Club filed a lawsuit claiming that dust from coal storage and the Alaska Railroad's loading system in Seward was polluting Resurrection Bay. The district court ruled that coal falling from the Seward Coal Loading Facility was allowed under the railroad's permit to discharge storm water. In September 2014 the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the district court ruling, finding that the coal dust violated the federal Clean Water Act. In June 2015 the U.S. Supreme Court said it would not review the 9th Circuit ruling. The district court has to decide whether the railroad committed specific violations of the federal Clean Water Act, whether there will be penalties, and whether the parties will be directed to pay attorney fees. Aurora Energy Services has applied for a wastewater-discharge permit that would allow the discharge of incidental coal during loading operations.
Articles and Resources
- "Usibelli Coal Mine, Inc." Alaska Miner’s Association Presentation, February 12, 2010
- Kevin Baird, "Usibelli halts coal exports indefinitely," newsminer.com, Aug 30, 2016
- "Exporting Alaska's Coal" Ground Truth Trekking, accessed June 13, 2011.
- "Asian demand sparks surge in Alaska mining projects" Manuel Quinones, E&E Reporter, September 12, 2011.
- Dan Joling, "US Supreme Court won't consider Seward coal pollution appeal," Associated Press, June 9, 2015