February 26, 2015

Strong Winds, Coal Dust, and the Proposed Gateway Pacific Coal Terminal

A major coal export terminal has been proposed at Cherry Point, on the Strait of Georgia northwest of Bellingham (see map).   Known as the Gateway Pacific Terminal (GPT), this proposed facility would offload large quantities of coal from rail cars into huge coal piles and then load the coal on to waiting ships.   We are talking about millions of tons of coal per year.
A major issue is whether winds will lift coal dust from this facility and then distribute the coal particles into the natural and human-occupied environment.  There is good reason for concern about this, with coal dust storms coming off the Canadian Westshore coal port when the wind picks up (see the image below).  The Westshore coal export facility is just north of the border (see figure) in a location that is far less windy than the proposed Cherry Point/GPT site (more on this later).

Coal dust blowing from the Westshore coal terminal, British Columbia, April 2012. Photo: Jerry Bierens, Delta Optimist.

The proposed GPT site will include large hills of coal delivered by 10-20 coal trains per day.  Will winds be sufficient to create coal dust storms as shown above?

To study the wind issue at the proposed Cherry Point site, UW undergraduate Ryan Clark and I  have examined the nearby wind observations, with support from a local non-profit organization (Research Now).   A summary of our findings can be accessed here, but I will summarize them in this blog.

 We looked at roughly five years of  6 minute or hourly wind data, mainly at two sites: the south pier near the BP Oil Refinery and a land site near the BP storage facility. The former site is maintained by NOAA's National Ocean Service and the later by the Northwest Clean Air Agency.  The proposed GPT coal pier is also shown on the map.

Strong winds are not unusual at the pier locations, something that is illustrated by the summary of the south pier wind speed data, shown below.  Keep in mind it takes winds of 20-30 mph to raise significant dust.  Winds that are probably strong enough to raise some dust occurred about 5 percent of the time, with winds certain to raise coal dust (33.6 mph and more) about .5% of the time (9 days over five years).

A nice way to summarize the winds at a location is something called a wind rose:  one for the south pier is shown below.  This plot shows the frequency of winds (in meters per second, multiple by roughly two to get knots) from various directions, with the shading indicating the frequency of various wind speeds.  The inner circle indicates 2% of the time, the middle circle 4% of the time, etc. The most frequent strong winds at this site are from the south-southeast, but there are also many strong winds from the northeast.   These are the winds blowing of the of the Fraser River valley, a major gap in the Cascades (see terrain map above).  A secondary peak is from the northwest.

The winds just inland at the BP land site (which should be similar to the proposed coal pile locations) is described by the wind rose below.  Quite a bit different; over land the winds are reduced (water is aerodynamically smooth compared to land surfaces) and the northeast winds coming out of the Fraser River Valley are much more prominent (perhaps 10-15% of the time).

A key issue for the proposed coal terminal site is that it is at ground zero for the northeasterly winds coming out of the Fraser River Valley--the positioning could not be worse.  And every few years there are extreme events, when the winds gust to 30-70 mph--which would play havoc with the coal piles.  For example, an event in December 1990 brought winds exceeding 30 meters per second (60 knots) over the proposed coal terminal.
 Want to see a video showing you what a strong SE blow in the Bellingham area can look like?  Click on the image or the link:

So strong winds will either blow the coal dust out into the Strait of Georgia, polluting the waters, or send the particles toward Vancouver (in SE winds) or towards Bellingham (NW winds) to influence the human population.   Blowing coal dust right over the prime habitat of the endangered southern resident killer whales, which are protected under both the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act.

And it is worse than that.   The proposed facility will use water sprayers (misters) to keep down the dust.  But the strong NE winds are virtually always accompanied by cold, below-freezing temperatures, which would freeze up the sprayers.

But there is more!  The incessant coal train traffic will tie up road traffic in the Puget Sound region as the trains block crossings in Seattle, Edmonds, and Everett (among other locations), with an substantial economic cost that will more than negate the few permanent jobs this project creates.   The coal ships and the trains coming and going will worsen regional air pollution, as will the combustion products produced in Asia when the coal is burnt--gases and particles that will waft their way across the Pacific back to us.

Heading our way

And the huge amount of coal burned as a result of this project will make a large contribution to global warming, outweighing everything done in our region to reduce our carbon footprint.

So how many ways can you spell environmental disaster?   And for what?   To help out Wyoming and Montana make some extra cash?  Increase the profits from some foreign coal companies?  We end up with profoundly negative impacts to our environment and economy and gain nothing in return.  Global warming is substantially worsened. Our roads get tied up and our air quality declines.

Stopping this irrational project should be the goal of a bipartisan coalition in our state since nearly  everyone will lose if it goes through.  Bad for business, bad for the environment, bad for traffic, bad for health.


  1. What is wrong with us humans? What the hell are we doing to our amazing planet? Oh yeah, money rules and we will slowly destroy everything we have to make sure we have all the money in the world, so we can pay to fight crazy forms of cancers and lung problems because of our greed. How we get power will continue to be a major battle, but we will jeopardize our health for this and then allow China to burn the coal and let the jet stream carry the pollutants back our way again? In the end most of us want our health, family and friends, is any of this really worth risking that for?

  2. Cliff,
    You are completely right about this one. Even ignoring the mess the trains make on their way up there, the bejillions of gallons of diesel they burn hauling that coal, and the traffic tie-ups, the destination transfer facility is a disaster. How has this passed the Environmental Impact stage? What will keep landslides from stopping these mile-long trains on their waterside tracks? How do we deal with the mess when one of these trains derails?

    China is making massive numbers of solar panels. If they'd stop polluting their air so much with all the damn coal they burn, those panels would make an incredible amount of energy for them. They could use some of the batteries they make to store it overnight when demand is lower and so is the sun. Build and incentivize electric car operation, and use those batteries to store grid energy. Seriously.

    Coal needs a stake through its heart. Washington should help drive it there.

  3. By my count there are four coal terminals and six crude oil terminal proposed for Washington State. What could go wrong?

  4. Thanks for giving your input Cliff. As a Bellingham resident against this proposal it is news here on a regular basis but always good to see people from surrounding communities chime in. Pointing out that this stands to negatively affect many other communities, be it the addition of 10-20 more trains a day through surround cities, wind blown dust, or environment hazards from burning coal, articles like this remind everyone that it is not just a Bellingham issue. Thanks!

  5. these are much better arguments being made against coal trains than the "coal dust" fears. that was bad, tactically, in my mind. BNSF installs a re-spray operation in pasco, says theyve responded to the public, voila. by the way the stuff they spray on the coal just drips all over the ground in pasco and pollutes the columbia river anyway.

    i digress, these here are sound arguments made against the coal terminals...even if a "problematic" wind event only occurs a couple times a year, that would be too much. the public would be very unpleased. will be interesting to see how the companies and the State respond to this sort of thing. cynically, these sorts of projects always seem to have a certain inevitability to them...like the seattle tunnel...too much money to be made...

  6. Applauding loudly here in north Whatcom County! Thank you, Cliff, for shedding light & focusing attention on this. As someone else noted, it gets a good deal of coverage here in our backyard, but deserves a broader audience. It will negatively affect all of us.

  7. I'm a bellingham resident and I am continually horrified that this project is still on the table. If anyone knows of a ways we can help to stop this, post them up. I know the Lummi are against it and may actually have the trump card (coal terminals endanger their treaty fishing rights). but I certainly don't want to rely on that happening.

  8. Thank you Cliff for putting scientific evidence behind the concerns most of us have shared simply by living in this area.
    I live in the San Juans where we know all about those strong winds. It would be nice if your expertise could be put to the effects of wind and wind-driven waves on shipping safety. While the cargo is coal, these bulk carriers carry an enormous amount of fuel that could threaten our entire Salish Sea ecosystem.

  9. Thanks, Cliff - this is one of the most important issues of our time (along with the oil train bombs traveling the same tracks as the coal trains).

    One fact that's omitted from the article - the Powder River coal is being mined on our federal public lands, at a high COST to taxpayers. These public lands were opened to coal mining by the Obama Administration to ostensibly supply our country's energy needs. That mining of our natural heritage is converting our shared public estate into a resource colony for China at a significant cost to us for private profit is beyond comprehension.

  10. Knud Stubkjaer, CEO of Carrix controller of SSA Marine and advancer of the proposed Gateway Terminal squares up this weather research with his credibility and obligations on the PNWs long term sustainability.

  11. Excellent post Cliff (& student)!!!

  12. On good weather days, ie NW winds our boat at Pt. Roberts marina gets a fine layer of coal dust from Roberts Bank. Now we'll get it with the SE winds too. Depressing!

  13. I love Cliff's blog and the wind data is substantive and interesting. But the last section of this post is an embarrassment.

    "which would freeze up the sprayers..." Not true. Dust suppression sprayers have winterization features and are in daily service in far colder climates like Duluth, MN. See for example http://www.johnsonmarch.com/pdf/Stockpile%20Dust%20Suppression.pdf

    "as the trains block crossings in Seattle, Edmonds, and Everett..." There are no at-grade crossings on the primary N-S freight route through Everett, and just two in Edmonds, both dead-end roads (one to the ferry). The relatively high track speeds there clear those crossings quickly. Seattle's down to just one major grade crossing north of downtown (Broad St) which will be bypassable once the viaduct's torn down (via a new Elliot St/Alaskan Way ramp), and the two main south end crossings (Holgate and Lander) already have alternatives. But the whole issue is irrelevant since local governments have zero say in mainline railroad usage, under long-standing federal law. Not a bad thing, as we'd never have a rail network otherwise, and the dramatic efficiency of rail vs. trucks has been an environmental good overall.

    "The coal ships and the trains coming and going will worsen regional air pollution" - really? Do you have data on this? Modern locomotives are incredibly efficient under new EPA standards http://www.epa.gov/otaq/locomotives.htm - and BNSF has been a leader investing in the newest & cleanest. Maybe you have a point on the ships, although a ship every other day doesn't seem material.

    "the huge amount of coal burned as a result of this project will make a large contribution to global warming" "global warming is substantially worsened..." Utter, unsupported nonsense. The total yearly coal here is an insignificant percentage of global coal usage, and could not possibly have measurable impact on warming - never mind a "large contribution". But in fact, the INCREMENTAL amount of coal burned will be zero, because coal is a global commodity, and building or not building this project will have zero impact on Chinese coal demand. I've seen counterarguments at Center for American Progress but they're based on price elasticity models dating back to the 1980's, and don't account for China's strong push towards renewables or the fact PRB coal prices will be rising in response to public pressure (and a lawsuit) over federal market-rate calculations.

    "will worsen regional air pollution, as will the combustion products produced in Asia when the coal is burnt..." No, since there'll be no material increase in those combustion products. Indeed, the opposite is true: a key motivation behind the terminal is improving access to low-sulfur Powder River Basin coal, whose emissions are dramatically less damaging than China's current high-sulfur sources. One of the great ironies of this debate is that the terminal may well be a net environmental benefit.

    Global warming is real, man is contributing, and encouraging China to reduce coal consumption is a good thing. It's happening - their consumption is on track to decline slightly this year, and they have aggressive plans for renewables. But they'll be burning coal for at least a couple more decades, and I'd much rather they burn low-sulfur Wyoming coal during that time.

    Meanwhile, let's keep the discussion based on facts, as in the wind-rose discussion, not emotional hyperbole. Thanks Cliff for all you do.

  14. MagBill,
    I think your information is incorrect. For example, if you check out the city of Seattle's coal train study (http://www.seattle.gov/transportation/docs/121105PR-CoalTrainTrafficImpactStudy.pdf) you will find that the impacts (more crossings) than you suggest. I have personally been stopped for trains at these other stops.

    And coal dust suppression will be problematic because there is both cold and wind. Water freezes and will be blown back on the sprayers unless they add chemicals to the water, but I doubt that is possible since a natural area surrounds the proposed coal piles. One would poison the surrounding land. You could heat the water, but it will still freeze rapidly once sprayed. And even if you warmed the water and added chemicals, the very strong winds would make it impossible to cover the coal piles. In short, every major wind outbreak out of the Fraser would produce a huge coal dust storm that would pollute the water and spread around the region. Bad idea.

  15. Thanks for responding to MagBill's last comment, Cliff. I just read "Statement of SSA Marine re: Cliff Mass report for Research Now March 2, 2015" linked to in The Bellingham Herald Politics Blog article at this link: http://www.bellinghamherald.com/2015/03/03/4163593_wind-study-suggests-coal-dust.html?rh=1
    I am hoping you will be posting a response to SSA's claims soon so that our residents of Whatcom County can be well armed when people buy into their profit-motivated point of view and try to dismiss your excellent research.

  16. thank you for your report on these dangers and what it would mean to our ecology, economy, and health if this port were built. Keep up the good work.


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