TSAWWASSEN, British Columbia — Mounted with a 200-foot arm, the giant reclaimer stacker at Roberts Bank looks like huge saw blade as it cuts into a two-story tall mound of coal.
The stacker rotates eight buckets through the pile, grabbing the black powder and feeding onto conveyor belts. Eventually the coal, mined from the fields of southeastern British Columbia and the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana, will be loaded onto ships bound for Asia and Europe, where it's used to manufacture steel and power factories and homes.
With an annual capacity of 29 million tons, Westshore is the largest coal export facility on the Pacific Coast. Located on a man-made peninsula about three miles into the Strait of Georgia, Westshore offloads nearly 600 rail cars per day at the terminal in this suburb 20 miles south of Vancouver, B.C.
The black coal piles, heavy equipment and 600-foot ships stand out amid a spectacular natural setting at the delta of the salmon-rich Fraser River, which is surrounded by snow-capped peaks, sandy beaches and the famously livable city of Vancouver.
While the 40-year-old coal terminal looks like an outsider, it's not a sooty eyesore, and Westshore officials say they'd like to keep it that way.
"We really have to keep our noses clean. There's no two ways around it. We are observed," said Denis Horgan, Westshore's general manager and executive vice president, during a tour of the facility on a cloudless and dry Jan. 31.
In Longview, opponents of a much smaller coal export terminal Millennium Bulk Terminals proposes to build at the old Reynolds Metals site are predicting a black, sooty neighbor that will pollute the air, waterways and nearby neighborhoods with coal dust. Westshore officials have heard those worries, too, and its giant terminal 320 miles to the north shows that it's not easy for coal export docks to be good neighbors.
Coating the neighborhood
Point Roberts is a beach community that juts into Boundary Bay, about three miles away from Westshore as the crow flies. It's part of mainland Canada five minutes from Tsawwassen, but it remains U.S. territory — land caught in the middle of the U.S.-Canada dispute over the 49th parallel in the 19th century. Most of the area's 1,100 permanent residents retain Canadian citizenship and culture while living on U.S. soil.
Point Roberts has a marina, an international market and high-end beachfront property. And, according to some residents, a problem with coal dust.
At the Point Roberts Marina, nearly 1,000 pleasure boats are docked with access to the Strait of Georgia. Coal dust is a "constant problem" for boat owners, who are frustrated to find their white boats covered with gray soot, said Jacquelyne Everett, the marina manager.
The marina no longer tracks the number of complaints, but the owner of a 72-foot power boat recently pulled out of Point Roberts to dock at another marina because he said he was tired of cleaning the coal dust, she said.
The prevailing winds of the Strait of Georgia usually sweep southeasterly, pushing any coal dust at the Westshore Terminals toward the sea. At times, however, the winds come from the northwest, spreading the dust onto Point Roberts.
Gary Stenersen, who runs the onsite detailing shop at Westwind Marine, said owners have started applying a Teflon coat to boats, which protects them from dust. Without it, cleaning can be a chore, Stenersen said.
"For us guys that do the detailing on the boats, it's a major pain in the ass," he said.
Eric Freeman, a marina employee, said he covers his house boat with a canvas to protect it against dust and weather.
The dry days are the worst, especially for older boats with older paint jobs, Freeman said.
"The boats will get fairly dusty because you're not getting any rain on them," he said.
Joe Dugger, a retired military aviator from Spokane, has kept his 45-foot sail boat at Point Roberts for seven years. He said he notices the dust if he hasn't sailed the boat for a few months, but the situation has improved over the past two years.
"Your boat looked like it had a lot of muck on it."
The grime also gathers on homes around Point Roberts, said Everett, who is constantly cleaning the soot off her white patio furniture during the summer.
About a block away from the marina, Fred Richardson says he can tell when the winds have shifted to blow coal dust his way.
Richardson, a retired mail carrier, lives part time in the two-story light-gray home. It's a posh neighborhood in Point Roberts, where most homes boast a spectacular backyard seaside view a few minutes' walk from the beach. Every spring, though, Richardson usually reserves about three to four hours to pressure-wash the west side of the house, which becomes dark gray from the dust.
Richardson said he always parks his 2011 black Ford Mustang on the other side of the house to shield the new paint from the coal dust.
"There's no way around it. I guess people can complain, but what can you do?" Richardson said.
Deci Bailey, real-estate broker with Remax Point Roberts, said coal dust is more of a nuisance than a real problem, and it hasn't scared away home buyers.
"It doesn't bother us here. But we live in heaven here anyway."
Wetting coal piles
Westshore tries to control coal dust emissions as best as it can, but they're impossible to eliminate completely, said Horgan, the company's general manager. The facility installed a water-suppression system in the 1980s to tamp down coal piles and has expanded the system over the past 30 years, he said.
Five 125-foot tall water towers stand in the middle of the stockpile area. The site is surrounded by 38 spray rings that mist down the coal piles in high winds, and 79 rain guns shoot water onto the lower level of the piles. The four stacker reclaimers, the workhorses of the terminal, are equipped with water cannons to drench the coal if necessary.
The system is automated, and Westshore employees closely monitor weather conditions to determine when to deploy the water, Horgan said. The company spends about $1.5 million annually for water and recycles as much as possible, company officials said.
Westshore has installed stations to monitor coal dust throughout the Delta basin, including Point Roberts, Horgan said.
"Over the years, we've tried to minimize the dust. We get very few complaints, but you get the occasional," he said.
"I don't think that we could ever get it down to absolute zero."
Despite the mounds of coal on site, clouds of black dust rarely are visible. Westshore provides a car wash station for vehicles leaving the site, which prevents black muck from spreading offsite. And visitors to the company's main office are warned to stomp their feet on the outside throw rug, lest they incur the janitors' wrath by tracking coal inside.
Westshore logged no complaints of coal dust from neighbors last year but had three in 2009, said Don Miller, senior officer for regulation and enforcement for the Greater Vancouver Regional District, which oversees air quality in the area.
The agency received five complaints between 2001 and 2008, Miller said. All the complaints originated from the Tsawwassen area directly east of the terminal, not Point Roberts, he said.
When they tested offsite dust samples collected by area residents, regulators found mostly organic and road dust and diesel exhaust mixed with a small amount of coal to produce a dark gray film, Miller said.
"If they live near a large coal operation like that, it's only human nature that they will think that has something to do with it. What we have found is that it's not usually the coal dust," Miller said.
Environmentalists in British Columbia have not targeted Westshore to cut back on coal dust because they have a larger goal — halting all Canadian coal exports by 2015, said Will Horter, executive director of Victoria, B.C.-based Dogwood Initiative.
Mining industry executives are predicting a banner year, opening at least three new and previously shuttered mines in southeastern British Columbia. This worries environmental groups, which protested at the British Columbia Legislature in late January against coal expansion because they say it contributes to global warming. Similar objections are being raised regarding Longview terminal.
"I'm frustrated that our government says it takes climate change seriously, but then recklessly encourages the big polluting industrial projects that cause it, like the development and export of oil, gas and coal," wrote Kevin Washbrook of Vancouver in his blog at the Dogwood Initiative website.
"I feel sick that the world is coming apart before my eyes, and that my kids will have to deal with the results," Washbrook wrote.
A fact of Tsawwassen life
Tsawwassen is Westshore's closest neighbor in the municipality of Delta, B.C., a suburb with about 100,000 people. Named for the Tsawwassen tribe that settled here centuries before, the town now is a tourist destination and a popular retirement community.
Tsawwassen is the gateway to Roberts Bank, mostly away from prevailing winds from the coal terminal. Highway 17, which leads to the port, is the primary road into town.
At Fred Gingell Park on the bluffs overlooking the Strait of Georgia, bikers and joggers frequently stop to take in the view or hike down to the Tsawwassen Beach below. The Roberts Bank port is clearly visible on the lookout deck of the city's newest park through the trees and brush, and most park users are unfazed.
At the nearby Hilltop Cafe, a brisk five-minute walk from the park, customers complain about overhead high-voltage power lines and a new housing development in the suburban neighborhood, but rarely mention the coal terminal, said Wes Levesque, 25, the cafe owner.
Tsawwassen boasts a water park, golf course, good weather and beautiful beaches, Levesque said. Residents don't think of Tsawwassen as a major coal exporter, he said.
"It's not even something that defines our town in any way. People don't think of Tsawwassen as a coal port town," Levesque said.
|BY THE NUMBERS||
*Millenium Bulk Terminals
|ANNUAL CAPACITY||29 million tons||5.7 million tons|
|DAILY RAIL CARS||600||125-250|