Dirtying America’s Land of the Midnight Sun

Alaska—a place of untamed American wilderness. Unfortunately, it’s also home to dirty coal. The second part of our ongoing series about communities dealing with coal ash problems takes us far north where in Fairbanks four coal-fired power plants generate coal ash used as fill for nearby lowlands.

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Alaska—a place of untamed American wilderness. Unfortunately, it’s also home to dirty coal. The second part of our ongoing series about communities dealing with coal ash problems takes us far north where in Fairbanks four coal-fired power plants generate coal ash used as fill for nearby lowlands.

Russ Maddox, a 2013 Clean Air Ambassador and member of the Sierra Club Council of Leaders Executive Committee, Resurrection Bay Conservation Alliance, and Alaska Youth for Environmental Action, lives in Seward, AK, which deals with the effects of coal exports and coal dust.
In 2012, Russ wrote about the problems of coal ash in his community for unEarthed. But earlier this month, he published an opinion piece in the Alaska Dispatch on the inferiority of coal mined in Alaska and burned at Alaskan power plants.

We’re pleased to share Russ’ opinion piece here and look forward to continue our work together with him and his community to establish federal safeguards for coal ash disposal:

“Nearly a century of burning wet, inferior coal for power and heat has left an indelible mark across our state. Our coal is not superior, and I’m not a disloyal Alaskan for saying such a thing.

Alaska’s sole producing coal mine likes to characterize its coal as “clean.” They’ve even gone so far as to claim that it is environmentally friendly. For years, we Alaskans have been subjected to their overzealous exaggerations through slick and heartwarming advertisements. This myth has become part of our identity. Our children have been plied with coal candy and “I Love Alaska Clean Coal” trinkets distributed on field trips, and at parades and fairs for generations. I’ve often debated the quality of Usibelli’s coal with many well-intentioned, thoughtful folks who tend to get emotional and see this as some sort of a matter of state pride and consider me disloyal for even suggesting that “our” coal is not superior.

The coal gift bag.
(Photo courtesy of Russ Maddox via Grist)

The fact of the matter is that Usibelli coal varies from very-low-grade sub-bituminous to even lower grade lignite. Roughly half of Usibelli’s coal is burned in the Interior’s small coal-fired power plants, and the other half goes south to Seward for export to distant destinations. The one single redeeming characteristic of Usibelli coal is that compared to other coal it is relatively low in sulfur. Usibelli coal is very high in moisture and very low in heating value and contains all of the same heavy metals and poly-aromatic-hydrocarbons as other coal. In distant power plants, Alaska coal is “blended” with higher quality coal which has higher levels of sulfur, to reduce the overall emissions of sulfur oxides to comply with their respective air regulations. Nowhere but Alaska is this low-grade coal used as a stand-alone fuel. More than one engineer has told me over the years that similar reductions in sulfur oxides could be achieved by “blending” ordinary dirt with the higher quality coals.

Nearly a century of burning this inferior coal for power and heat has left an indelible mark across our state. The Environmental Protection Agency is currently considering placing a downtown Fairbanks neighborhood on the National Priorities List for contamination from fallout and ash spread from the downtown coal-fired power plant. In Seward a soon-to-be-released dust study reveals that oftentimes more than half of the dust blowing over our small boat harbor is coal dust from the gigantic coal stockpiles awaiting export. With Usibelli subsidiary, Aurora Energy owning the downtown power plant in Fairbanks and operating the export facility in Seward, the Usibellis are prominent members of our communities and wield tremendous political clout. They also provide comparatively inexpensive albeit inferior coal for retail sale for home use up and down the Railbelt. When oil prices skyrocketed in 2008, more people resorted to burning coal for home heating. With increased home use come increased conflicts between those who burn coal and their neighbors who don’t but suffer the consequences.

A bit of research revealed that many coal stoves currently in use and available for sale in Alaska are not designed nor certified for low quality coal such as Usibelli’s. Many of the most popular indoor coal stoves available here were manufactured back east and were designed and certified for use with their low-moisture, high heating-value anthracite coal. Burning inferior coal in a stove designed and certified for anthracite even once invalidates any warranty and could compromise any insurance claim involving damages caused by misuse.

Usibelli coal can be as high as 34 percent moisture. Imagine those coal trains with every third rail car full of water; that is Usibelli coal. Underwriters Laboratories tests and certifies all coal stoves using anthracite coal with only 5 percent moisture content. Burning such moist coal creates excessive smoke, increasing air pollution and also leaves more ash to contend with. Burning such moist coal increases soot buildup in the chimney that can cause chimney fires. Burning such wet coal tends to cause gases to build up that can explode inside the stove and chimney. Even one explosion can damage seals and gaskets and loosen screws which could cause leaks which would increase risk of exposure to carbon monoxide inside homes. This same phenomenon occurs in the power plants, much to the dismay of their neighbors.

Loyal coal users like to downplay the risk and blame the operator if it explodes but the fact of the matter is, the coal is simply too wet. It comes out of the ground that way, and when dried it crumbles to dust. To fully combust would require additional or forced air to the firebox as hydronic boilers and power plants have. Dampers are often misguidedly installed in chimneys to further extend burn time, but this only increases the risk of explosion. Such wet coal needs more air not less. To his credit, after being notified of this confounding oversight, the Alaska State Fire Marshal quickly issued a public service announcement warning of using unapproved fuel in household stoves.

As we enter into another winter, it is not clear how this revelation will affect the many hundreds of residents burning inferior coal in unsafe stoves across the state. Who is responsible? The unwitting consumer? The stove dealer who sold you the stove and directed you where to buy the coal? The manufacturer or distributor who sold coal stoves to a distant state with no suitable fuel available? Or the unscrupulous coal mine determined to sell its inferior coal?”

This opinion piece was first published in the Alaska Dispatch.

If you missed it, read part one of this blog series, No EPA Progress on Anniversary of Coal Ash Disaster and explore the coal ash infographic:

Jared was the head coach of Earthjustice's advocacy campaign team from 2004 to 2014.

Earthjustice’s Washington, D.C., office works at the federal level to prevent air and water pollution, combat climate change, and protect natural areas. We also work with communities in the Mid-Atlantic region and elsewhere to address severe local environmental health problems, including exposures to dangerous air contaminants in toxic hot spots, sewage backups and overflows, chemical disasters, and contamination of drinking water. The D.C. office has been in operation since 1978.