A Citizen Fighting for a Healthier Seward

Aug 06, 2015
Lisa Oakley

CLIENT PERSPECTIVE: Russ Maddox is a citizen activist living in Seward. He’s been a leading voice for cleaner air, water and living conditions for residents of Resurrection Bay.

Russ Maddox

Russ Maddox

In 2001 my home and business were contaminated by my neighbor’s illegal junkyard fire. My property was covered with lead-laden ash and I could not continue operating my dog boarding kennel until it was all cleaned up. It took two years to complete the lawsuit. Through the behavior and actions of these neighbors I learned that there really are folks in Alaska that simply do not care about their environment much less their neighbors’ well-being. By the time the heavily publicized trial was over, Sewardites began calling me for advice and to report environmental issues they had witnessed.

Shortly thereafter, the local shipyard began hauling and dumping truckloads of white sand on the same neighboring property. A City of Seward harbor department employee called me to let me know it was actually spent sandblast waste that was quite likely contaminated with paint from ship hulls. By this time, some of the many piles of toxic waste were spilling on to my property. Pam Miller at Alaska Community Action on Toxics (ACAT) advised me to collect some material for lab analysis and to document everything that occurred. The material turned out to be contaminated with tributyltin and hydrocarbons that should have been disposed of in a lined landfill.

Knowing the shipyard was owned by the City of Seward, I went straight to the mayor who explained that unless laws were broken which would violate the shipyard lease, the city’s hands were tied. We learned that sandblast waste had been routinely used for decades as fill for driveways and handed out to shipyard employees to be used for traction on ice. We also learned that the shipyard operator did not have any permits whatsoever and without a permit, there was no de facto violation. This was when ACAT and Resurrection Bay Con

servation Alliance sought counsel from Trustees for Alaska. Through the course of our investigation, we realized that similar unpermitted practices were routine in Seward’s small boat harbor as well.

Thus began our epic lawsuit with the City of Seward which spanned several administrations and nearly a decade. We eventually prevailed and both the shipyard operator and City of Seward obtained the proper permits for the shipyard and adjacent Seward Marine Industrial Center. The city opted to outlaw boat repairs in the small boat harbor rather than obtain the proper permits and enforce them. Thanks to Trustees’ expert assistance and guidance, our shipyard now has a new and responsible operator that we are confident will responsibly control and dispose of the waste they generate and the city now has a permit for the Seward Marine Industrial Center which compels them to make sure regulations are followed.

In the meantime, the Alaska Railroad took over the derelict coal export facility in Seward in 2006. Rather than repairing and replacing the nonfunctional equipment necessary to control coal dust, they lobbied the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to redefine the facility to a Coal Storage Facility, which did not require permits and dust containment. The previous operators were required to have permits and dust containment when it was defined as a Coal Processing Facility. The operations and facility were still exactly the same, just without necessary containment to keep coal dust from polluting Seward.

Smoldering piles of coal at the Seward Coal Loading Facility. Photo courtesy of Russ Maddox.

Smoldering piles of coal at the Seward Coal Loading Facility. Photo courtesy of Russ Maddox.

By simply changing how the facility was defined, the Alaska Railroad (who owns the facility) and Aurora Energy Services (who runs it) were no longer required to have permits or to repair the baghouses and spray bars on the conveyors to control coal dust. The former operators were limited to emitting 20 tons of coal dust annually and accomplished this using many spray bars on the conveyors and baghouse dust collection systems. The Railroad and Aurora had no limits or requirements. Using the EPA’s formula we estimated that hundreds of tons of coal dust blow from the massive uncontained coal stockpiles annually. Without permits the state’s air quality regulation only requires the operator to take “reasonable precautions” to limit fugitive dust, and often elevate the operator’s expenses to comply over protecting the environment and public health.

Knowing this now, it is no surprise that Seward was blanketed with toxic coal dust when they loaded their very first ship. There were so many revealing images of black dust clouds and coal dust floating on the bay along with citizen reports and complaints that DEC cited the facility for air quality violations. Through citizen reports and by observing the operation, we also learned that tons of coal was falling from the conveyor belt directly in to Resurrection Bay. The coal ships’ berth is periodically dredged and the contaminated dredge spoils are routinely used to fill in lowlands in Seward, perpetuating this toxic cycle.

With ACAT’s assistance and Trustees for Alaska’s legal advice, we learned once again that without permits there was little that we could do. DEC began negotiating with the facility to restore some of the previous operator’s dust containment measures but ignored our concerns of spillage in to the bay. It was obvious DEC’s effort would be long-term and incremental. With coal dust still blowing over Seward and coal continuing to spill into the bay, ACAT teamed up with the Alaska Chapter of the Sierra Club to bring a lawsuit against the Facility for failing to have a Clean Water Act permit for the discharges of coal and coal dust into the Bay. We were successful and now the Facility is in the process of obtaining a permit.

Coal dust coating near the Seward Coal Loading Facility. Photo courtesy of Russ Maddox.

Coal dust coating near the Seward Coal Loading Facility. Photo courtesy of Russ Maddox.

There has also been progress on the ground at the coal facility, but they still have a long way to go. With the world turning away from coal in response to global climate change, the Facility only expects to send two shiploads out this year. This is a dramatic decline. Back in 2011, the Facility loaded 17 vessels with coal destined for Asia and South America. The Railroad has said that until the Facility secures long-term sales agreements there would be no funds for additional containment. Still, somehow they found millions of dollars to try to avoid being permitted and held accountable.

Our local shellfish hatchery cannot use local seawater seven months of the year because it is already too acidic. Knowing Usibelli coal is acidic, adding hundreds of tons of coal directly to our bay could only increase the local acidity and further limit periods when local seawater is suitable for shellfish rearing. This hatchery was built to supply the then up-and-coming mariculture industry in Alaska. With one resource competing with another, it seems we should choose the renewable and edible resource. Seward is a much healthier place to live and recreate thanks to the epic efforts of Trustees for Alaska.

Learn more about Trustees for Alaska’s work to protect Seward and Resurrection Bay from coal pollution.

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