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Windy Cherry Point:
   A Terrible Place to Build a Coal Terminal

March 2015

Cover Story

Windy Cherry Point:
   A Terrible Place to Build a Coal Terminal

by Michael Riordan

A Ph.D. physicist from MIT, Michael Riordan is author of “The Hunting of the Quark” and coauthor of “Crystal Fire” and “The Solar Home Book.” He writes about science, technology and public policy from Orcas Island. This is the first of three articles he is writing on the scientific case against the coal terminal.

The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind.
The answer is blowin' in the wind.
— Bob Dylan

Images for this story:

From a meteorologist's perspective, Cherry Point is a terrible site for a coal terminal, for it endures some of the fiercest winds in Washington state.

These wintry gales out of the northeast have been obvious to my wife and me ever since we purchased our house on Orcas Island's north side, facing across Georgia Strait to this cobble-strewn promontory. From our deck we can look out over wind-whipped waters and watch the pallid plumes that normally waft above the BP Refinery north of the point stream our way instead.

So when I first encountered SSA Marine's plans to build a gargantuan coal terminal at the point, I said to her, "They can't be serious. This must be a joke!"

But to my surprise and dismay, they were. And it wasn't.

Not only would this project be the largest coal terminal in North America, shipping more than 50 million tons of the dusty Powder River Basin (PRB) coal annually, according to project documents. The Gateway Pacific Terminal (GPT) would also include over 80 acres of uncovered storage piles towering more than 60 feet high, holding up to 3 million tons of coal nakedly exposed to these gales.1

A brief dive into the meteorology literature confirmed my worst fears. A 1995 article in Monthly Weather Review by renowned University of Washington atmospheric scientist Cliff Mass (author of "The Weather of the Pacific Northwest") and colleagues concluded that gale-force winds could be expected there every winter.2 These frigid, blustery winds blow through northern Whatcom County between Blaine and Bellingham because the Fraser River Gap to the northeast channels air flowing from high-pressure systems over inland British Columbia toward the Pacific Ocean, accelerating the wind's speed as it surges through the narrow breach. As Mass et al. stated, "Strong (greater than 25 m/s) outflows of arctic air through the Fraser Gap into Western Washington occur once or twice a year."3

Fraser Gap Winds

And these Fraser Gap winds can occasionally hit hurricane force! That's what clobbered the area on Dec. 28, 1990, and was the subject of this paper. Winds up to 100 mph raged from Whatcom County shores across Georgia Strait, slammed into the northeast side of Orcas Island, and converted dense, verdant forests there into huge tangles of downed timber. Fortunately, there were no six-story-high piles of coal in the way of this torrent.

So it's reassuring to learn that Prof. Mass and UW student Ryan Clark have recently published a report, "Wind Characteristics near Cherry Point, Washington, Site of the Proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal."4 Supported by the not-for-profit organization Research Now, this timely study is based on over five years of wind data recorded by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration at the two BP piers and by the Northwest Clean Air Agency near the BP refinery a few kilometers inland. The emerging picture: Cherry Point is an extremely windy location.

Their analysis shows that most of the strongest winter winds at these locations blow from two general directions — out of the east-northeast, as I had expected, and from the south-southeast — that are obvious in "wind roses" (see Fig. 1) that the authors compiled from NOAA and NWCAA data at the three sites. As Clark and Mass conclude, "Strong winds exceeding 33.6 mph at the piers have been observed roughly 2,500 times over a five-year period (2008-2013), with the predominant directions of the strongest winds being northeasterly and southeasterly." The annual average wind speeds at the piers are close to 10 mph — and increase substantially in winter.

At all three stations, winter winds flow from east to northeast directions over one third of the time. And very strong winds blow from the south to southeast when winter storm fronts pass through, partly due to all the open water to the south. As I began drafting this article, in fact, southerly wind gusts up to 55 mph ripped through Cherry Point when a storm front swept by on Jan. 18, in what Mass called only "a moderate blow."5

But the fiercest winds at Cherry Point are the northeasterly Fraser Gap winds. Last Nov. 29, for example, a cold, dry "arctic blast" struck the entire Puget Sound area, according to Mass.6 The strongest, gale-force gusts, measured at 40 to 54 mph, occurred in Whatcom County and the San Juan Islands (see Figure 3) — with Cherry Point smack in the middle.

Fugitive Coal Dust

Had an immense coal terminal already been built at Cherry Point, this gusty atmospheric flood would have raised "fugitive" coal dust storms from its open, towering coal piles and caused operations to shut down for at least a day.

What's worse, Fraser Gap wind storms can last for days — and as long as a week.7 So coal terminal operations would have to come to a complete halt for this period, with mile-long, loaded coal trains backing up on rail sidings and empty bulk carriers clustering at anchor in Bellingham Bay, all waiting for the winds to die down.

If the terminal were somehow allowed to continue operating, huge black clouds of coal dust (like the one shown in Figure 2) would loom out across Georgia Strait, dropping much of their particulate matter into the adjacent waters of Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve. The very lightest particles — smaller than a micrometer (or 40 millionths of an inch) in diameter, which can lodge deep in our lungs and even enter the bloodstream — would probably remain aloft, streaming all the way over to the San Juan Islands 10–20 miles away.

Air temperatures usually fall below freezing during these northeast gales, so the misting systems used to wet down the coal piles would be useless. Thus even if all operations were halted, winds rushing over the exposed coal piles for days would still drive large amounts of dust into Salish Sea waters. This is what regularly happens at a coal terminal in Seward, Alaska, which sits directly in the path of frigid, gale-force "Chinooks" from the north that often blow tons of coal dust into adjacent Resurrection Bay in winter.8

According to the laws of physics, the power of winds to loft particles of dust grows almost exponentially with wind speed (see Fighting Entropy below). If wind speed doubles, say from 10 to 20 mph, the amount of lofted coal dust quadruples. At 40 mph, or gale force, it swells by a whopping factor of 16! And stronger gales can loft heavier dust particles and carry them much farther before they settle.

What could occur at GPT happened at Westshore Terminals just over the border in British Columbia in April 2012. A sudden, unexpected gust of only 28 mph triggered a huge coal dust storm that blackened the skies as it swept out over the adjacent tidelands and waters (see Figure 2).9 At 40 mph it would have been more than twice as bad, and the dust would have carried a lot farther.

An extensive study of the Salish Sea floor around this terminal showed, as one might expect, that it is coated with tiny particles of coal — in some cases accounting for more than 10 percent of the sediments.10 Similar black residues will likely accumulate in the Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve if GPT ever gets built.

Photographs of Westshore operations by Paul Anderson of Bellingham show that plenty of coal dust enters the water while bulk coal carriers are being loaded during normal operations. Wind flowing over the deck can suck dust up and out of a ship's hold by a force due to the "Bernoulli effect." This effect is what allows airplanes and birds to fly: air speeds up when flowing over the rounded top of a wing, thereby reducing air pressure above it and creating lift. (It also helps lift coal particles from storage piles.)

When these huge vessels block the wind — as they would at the GPT pier whenever northeasterly winds occur — the air flow is forced up and over them, which increases its speed and enhances the effect. That is why you can see so much dust accumulating on the carrier deck in the photograph (see Figure 4).

The amount of coal dust that enters Salish Sea waters from GPT storage piles and operations would be measured in tons — probably many tons. We can estimate it by comparison with operating coal terminals like Westshore, which releases over 900 metric tons of fugitive coal dust annually (see Fighting Entropy sidebar), or about 30 grams of dust per ton of coal shipped. A similar figure emerges from an analysis of a Minnesota coal terminal that loaded the same Powder River Basin coal as GPT plans to.11 Even if GPT could reduce these dust losses by a factor of 10 using sophisticated technology and by putting the storage piles farther from the water, it would still generate over 150 tons of fugitive coal dust annually.

Where Will It Go?

Where will all this coal dust end up? Well, the larger, heavier particles from the storage piles and inland operations would likely fall back onto the GPT site, to be washed into the sea eventually by rainwater unless catchment systems can somehow prevent that. But the ancient Lummi village and sacred burial ground Xwe'Chi'eXen, a state historic landmark located within the site, would surely be blackened by coal dust over the years.

The smaller, lighter coal particles will escape the site, fleeing mainly toward the northwest and southwest, driven by the prevailing southeast and northeast winds. And just to the northwest lies the BP refinery, where this coal dust could hamper sensors, clog air-inlet ducts and induce valves to stick open or shut if workers there do not inspect and clean them regularly.

But it's the coal dust blown toward the southwest that worries me most. Essentially all of it — especially that from ship-loading activities — will end up in the water, particularly in the Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve that surrounds the proposed location of the GPT pier. The up-to 1-knot currents flowing along Whatcom shores past Cherry Point would carry the slowly sinking coal particles northwest as far as Birch Bay, with its lush eelgrass beds, or south-southeast to Lummi Bay and its shellfish farms.

All along these shores is a thriving ecosystem full of eelgrass and kelp.12 It also harbors a Dungeness crab fishery important to the Lummi Nation,13 among others, and serves as one of the few remaining spawning grounds for Cherry Point herring. This Reserve was established primarily to attempt to restore the dwindling population of these once-plentiful forage fish — on which Chinook salmon, seabirds and other species feed. Just imagine what it will look like underwater there after several years of GPT operations.14

In summary, the fierce wind storms that occur at Cherry Point make it a terrible place to put a coal terminal. A far better use of this area, especially near the water's edge, would be for a wind farm. With that the strong, prevailing winds could work for us local citizens, rather than against us, by generating clean electrical power instead of littering noxious coal dust upon nearby lands and waters.

I look forward to the day, hopefully soon, when Orcas Islanders can gaze across windswept Salish Sea waters and watch the sleek, graceful blades of wind turbines turning steadily, generating lasting local power and green jobs for Whatcom County workers.

Fighting Entropy: A Losing Battle

Coal terminal operators have a difficult, onerous task because they are fighting what we physicists call "entropy." According to our cherished Second Law of Thermodynamics, everything in Nature wants to regress toward states of increasing disorder — of which entropy is the measure.

In any system left to itself, that is, disorder or entropy always increases. It's like a drop of ink in a glass of water; it always spreads out and never comes back together again. Add a little energy by stirring the water, and the spreading occurs far more rapidly.

Coal suppliers transport this mineral in its crushed or powdered form because that's how utilities and other customers want it delivered. Powder River Basin coal is worse yet, for it dries and cracks in transit, making it much dustier. But the Second Law mandates that any such collection of tiny coal particles, whether just a handful or a huge storage pile, would rather be scattered about than remain docilely together in one place. Unless tightly constrained, they will naturally disperse to states of greater disorder, or higher entropy. And the greater the winds whipping about, the worse this problem rapidly becomes.

According to Bernoulli's law, also known as the Bernoulli effect — which causes the lift force that enables airplanes to fly — the power of the wind to loft (and disperse) coal particles increases as the square of the wind speed. And drag forces on these particles grow similarly.15 If the wind speed doubles, the amount of fugitive coal dust quadruples; if it triples, nine times as much fugitive dust will occur. So the problem of constraining coal dust worsens tremendously when winds blow hard. And strong gales or sudden gusts present the severest problem.

Winds blowing over a coal storage pile or the open hatches of a bulk carrier during loading will exert forces that draw coal particles up and away, sending them flying willy-nilly. Another big contribution to the fugitive dust at a coal terminal is generated when coal is dropped from or scooped up by the ten-story "stacker/reclaimer" machines that move coal to and from the piles.

How bad can it get? An official Canadian government analysis of fugitive coal dust at Westshore (which is not nearly as windy as Cherry Point) calculated that 716 metric tons of dust was generated there every year — back when the terminal was shipping only 22.5 million tons of coal annually.16 So it now must be losing over 900 tons of coal dust a year, because annual shipments have since grown to about 30 million tons.

That comes to about 30 grams of fugitive dust per metric ton of coal shipped — or 30 parts per million. Which doesn't seem like much until you multiply it by the millions of tons shipped annually. If GPT could somehow reduce its coal-dust releases by a factor of 10, corresponding to 90 percent efficiency, they would amount to about 3 grams per ton shipped. That's only about a teaspoonful per ton. But multiply that by 50 million tons a year, and you still get 150 metric tons (or 165 short tons) of fugitive coal dust per year, much of it entering the nearby waters. This is not rocket science; it's just simple arithmetic.

But reducing the rate of those losses is a big "if." When the wind blows hard, as it obviously does at Cherry Point, fighting entropy ultimately becomes a losing battle. And actual experience, including the adverse impacts of human error or laziness, always a factor, does not bode success.


  1. Gateway Pacific Terminal Project Information Document (Seattle: Pacific International Terminals, Inc., Feb. 28, 2011), 4-7. Available online at:
  2. Clifford F. Mass, et al., "A Windstorm in the Lee of a Gap in a Coastal Mountain Barrier," Monthly Weather Review (February 1995), 315-331. Also Brian A. Colle and Clifford F. Mass, "Windstorms along the Western Side of the Washington Cascade Mountains," Monthly Weather Review (January 1998), 53–71. For a general overview of Fraser Gap winds, see "The Fraser Gap Wind," available at
  3. Mass et al., "A Windstorm," 316. 25 meters per second equals 56 miles per hour, a strong gale.
  4. Ryan Clark and Cliff Mass, "Wind Characteristics near Cherry Point, Washington, Site of the Proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal," Research Now Report No. 15-01 (February 2015), available online at
  5. Cliff, Mass, "A Moderate, Blow," January 18, 2015, available online at The winds at Sandy Point Shores several miles south-southeast of Cherry Point reached 63 mph that same morning. These were among the highest wind speeds recorded anywhere in Northwest Washington state during this storm.
  6. Cliff Mass, "Arctic Blast Hits Washington state," November 29, 2014, available online at
  7. Clark and Mass, "Wind Characteristics near Cherry Point," 9-10.
  8. "Air Quality Observations and Recommendations for the Seward Coal Loading Facility," HMH Consulting, Anchorage, AK, March 2007. Heidi Zimmer, "Coal Dust in Alaska: Hazards to Public Health," Alaska Community Action, Inc., July 2014. Because of the fugitive dust generated in high winds, terminal operations have typically had to halt when the wind speed exceeded 14 mph. Russell Maddox, personal communication.
  9. "Unexpected wind gust stirs up coal dust at Roberts Bank," The Delta Optimist, 13 April 2012;
  10. Ryan Johnson and R. M. Bustin, "Coal Dust Dispersal Around a Marine Coal Terminal (1977–1999), British Columbia: The Fate of Coal Dust in the Marine Environment," International Journal of Coal Geology, Vol. 68 (2006), 57–69; see especially Figs. 2 and 3.
  11. Michael Sydor and Kirby Storz, "Sources and Transports of Coal in the Duluth-Superior Harbor," US Environmental Protection Agency Report No. ERA-600/3-80-007 (January 1980)
  12. WA Department of Natural Resources, "Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve Management Plan," November 2010. See the Whatcom Watch insert "Our Living Jewel – Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve" in the October/November 2012 issue:
  13. Jeremiah Julius and Matt Krogh, personal communications.
  14. For a review of the impacts of coal dust in marine ecologies, see Michael J. Ahrens and Donald J. Morrisey, "Biological Effects of Unburnt Coal in the Marine Environment," in Oceanography and Marine Biology: An Annual Review, Vol. 43 (2005) 69–122, esp. 75–78 on physical effects of coal, which cites a study of coal-impacts on Dungeness crab near Westshore Terminals.
  15. J. F. Kok et al., "The Physics of Wind-Blown Sand and Dust," Reports on Progress in Physics, Vol. 75 (2012), 106901.
  16. Douglas L. Cope and Kamal K. Bhattacharyya, "A Study of Fugitive Coal Dust Emissions in Canada." Report to the Canadian Council of Ministers on the Environment, November 2011.

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