As far as government regulators are concerned, grain dust floating over the Port of Longview is no different from dust that might blow off coal piles at the proposed Millennium Bulk Terminals plant west of town.
Both grain and coal are classified as "particulates" — a broad category of chemicals, dirt, dust and other airborne material. In the government's eyes, issuing permits to allow emissions of wheat is the same as permits for coal.
"The dust off (coal) piles, in terms of air quality, is no different than the dust off a large grain pile or dust from a haul road," said Wess Safford, a permit engineer for the Vancouver-based Southwest Clean Air Agency.
Such a perspective worries coal opponents, who claim that three proposed Columbia River terminals would stir up clouds of dust and leave a black, dusty film over the community. They say the industry has a spotty track record, despite its promises to limit dust, and that the 44-million-ton export facility is not worth the 135 permanent jobs and millions of tax dollars promised by Millennium.
Proponents, though, say such fears are exaggerated and argue that the industry will install proven dust-suppression technologies that have been used for two decades.
Millennium officials say they know their biggest environmental challenge is controlling fugitive coal dust. Company officials say they plan to use the newest water-spraying systems, covered conveyor systems and loading equipment to limit the amount of dust that escapes from the $643 million terminal.
"Our facility design will include the best available technology. We will set up the best operating practices, and we will have continuous monitoring to ensure all of the regulations will be met," Millennium CEO Ken Miller said in an interview last week. (see related article "Proposed Coal Terminal Process")
That's not good enough for environmentalists, who argue that state and federal agencies need to develop stricter dust-control regulations in response to the sudden appearance of new coal dock proposals.
"If Oregon and Washington are going to be home to those massive facilities, there should be standards" specific to coal, Jan Hasselman, an attorney for Seattle-based Earthjustice, said last week.
Coal dust 'easy to handle'
Regulatory agencies are in the early stages of considering air emissions and building permits for six coal terminals proposed in Washington and Oregon.
Washington air quality officials look at the overall particulate level in the area rather than measuring specific types of dust, such as coal, said Safford of Clean Air, which regulates the TransAlta coal plant near Centralia.
"Most of the national focus is that coal dust is, all by itself, this rogue pollutant and has its own standards," but that's not the case, Safford said. "For us coal is a concern, but it's just another concern on the list of other particulate matter sources, rather than a category itself."
Coal dust has been regulated throughout the country for decades.
"It's a bulk commodity that's handled like ore or grain and the best management practices are very similar," Safford said, noting that powdered cement produces much more dust than does coal. "Coal is fairly easy to handle and, to some extent, easier than grain, because you can put water on it, which you can't do with grain."
Millennium's emission standards will be determined within 18 to 24 months after the company files for permits, according to Clean Air. The agency generally balances dust-suppression techniques with costs, and Millennium will be required to hire an independent contractor to conduct emission tests.
Once a terminal opens, regulators will track visible emissions and take periodic samples of dust emissions. Companies that fail to adequately control dust can be ordered to comply, fined or, in extreme cases, shut down.
Regulatory agencies, however, acknowledge that tracking coal emissions can be difficult: Diesel exhaust, petcoke and other pollutants look the same as coal, which makes identifying the source difficult.
Coal dust problems elsewhere
Last month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency asked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which issues waterway building permits, to take a more comprehensive look at coal terminals in the Pacific Northwest, specifically the dust problem. The corps is considering the request.
EPA officials said they wanted further study of the respiratory problems associated with breathing coal dust. Past studies show these effects among coal miners, but have been inconclusive in neighborhoods near coal-handling operations. EPA officials say they hope the study will help permitting agencies develop emission standards specific to coal terminals.
The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration has specific coal dust exposure standards for miners and workers, but not for overall air quality in communities with coal processing facilities.
Coal terminals worldwide have struggled to contain dust for years. At the West Coast's largest coal dock, Westshore Terminal south of Vancouver, B.C., an unforeseen 28 mph wind gust kicked up a flurry of coal that left a black haze in the air April 12. Residents in neighboring Point Roberts have also complained that a black film is constantly settling on their homes, cars and boats.
In Southeastern Virginia, residents have complained that coal dust from the Dominion Terminal in Newport News has led to increased asthma rates, although the county's health district says it hasn't made a direct connection between health problems and coal, according to a 2011 story in The Newport News Daily Press. Health district officials say diesel exhaust and particulates from other sources could be responsible for some of the dust, according to the newspaper.
A railroad company and coal company in Seward, Alaska, in 2010 agreed to pay a $220,000 fine and install water sprayers and misters at the terminal in that resort town on the state's southern coast. Residents had complained of coal dust problems for years, according to The Associated Press.
Opponents point to mishaps at other coal terminals as reasons to be skeptical of Millennium's claims. They argue the company won't be able to control all fugitive dust despite employing the best available countermeasures.
"If they could point to a large coal-handling facility that was clean and did not have adverse impacts, I would consider that a starting point for a discussion about how to handle coal responsibly in the Northwest," said Eric de Place, senior researcher at Seattle-based Sightline Institute, an environmental think tank.
Hasselman of Earthjustice noted that California requires all coal, petcoke and similar handling operations to operate in an enclosed area, and he envisions a push by Oregon and Washington environmentalists to adopt similar standards to cover the giant stockpiles of coal planned for the Millennium terminal.
"If projects move forward, I think you will begin to see a keen level of interest in having that kind of regulation here," he said.
Miller said Millennium could never operate in an enclosed space because necessary equipment, such as reclaimer stackers, is too large. He added that company officials believe they can address dust problems to the satisfaction of the community while cleaning up the highly contaminated former Reynolds Metals aluminum site.
"We're just excited about being a part of a plan to revitalize this 70-year-old brownfield site into a world class port," Miller said.
Coal Dust 101
• Coal is a sedimentary rock found in the earth comprised primarily of carbon along with other elements including hydrogen, sulfur, oxygen and nitrogen.
• Coal dust is an odorless dark brown to black dust created by the crushing, grinding, or pulverizing coal, according to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
• Exposure to coal dust can occur through inhalation, ingestion, and eye contact.
• In humans, prolonged exposure to coal dust with less than 5 percent silica causes pneumoconiosis (black lung disease), bronchitis and emphysema and can lead to premature death. It's classified as a "tumorigenic agent" — something that causes tumors — in experimental animals, according to OSHA. Coal dust with greater than 5 percent silica is classified the same as quartz, which can cause severe scarring of the lungs and is classified as carcinogenic to humans by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.
• Most coal dust exposure regulations address coal miners or workers within coal processing plants. General air quality standards deal with the overall particulate matter in the air, not coal dust specifically.