Lawsuit filed over coal dust near Alaska town

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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — Two environmental groups are going to court to try and force the Alaska Railroad and an energy company to clean up the coal dust problem dirtying a scenic tourist town.

Residents have complained for years that the huge pile of coal stockpiled near its harbor is polluting Seward, a town popular with summer tourists, according to the Sierra Club and Alaska Community Action on Toxics. The coal is waiting for delivery to ships for export to China, Korea and Chile.

Austin Williams, a lawyer with Trustees for Alaska, said those pleas for help mostly have been ignored.

“We are definitely looking for a resolution to this issue,” he said Wednesday, adding that he expects a federal court hearing to be held in coming months.

The lawsuit alleges that the state-owned railroad and Aurora Energy Services in Seward are violating the federal Clean Water Act by allowing coal chunks to fall into Resurrection Bay and allowing coal dust to settle on the water.

The lawsuit, which was filed Dec. 28, asks the court to force the railroad and Aurora to either stop polluting or get a permit. It also seeks civil penalties for violating federal law.

Williams said for years residents have complained that when the wind blows from the north, coal dust flies from the 90,000-ton pile. They can see the chunks falling from the conveyor belt when the coal is loaded onto ships, he said.

The Alaska Railroad said it has spent more than $1 million improving the facility, including sealing openings to control dust and installing a new transfer chute to minimize accidental spillage. A call for comment was not immediately returned Wednesday.

The coal storage and loading facility was built in 1984 as a state economic development project to sell coal mined in the state to world markets. Hyundai ran the facility until January 2007, when the railroad entered into an operating agreement with Aurora.

The coal, which is transported by rail to Seward, is stored in a large pile near the boat harbor. Each train carries about 6,350 tons of coal. In the winter, coal trains run every other day and during the summer, they run twice a week. It takes about 11 trainloads to fill a ship.

Pam Miller, executive director of Alaska Community Action on Toxics, said simple measures could prevent the problem but instead the companies are choosing to risk the health of Seward residents and visitors.

“Inhalation of coal dust can permanently damage lung tissue, and children, people with chronic illnesses, and the elderly are particularly vulnerable,” she said.