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Whatcom Watch Online
Tons of Coal Being Washed into the Salish Sea

June 2015

Cover Story

Tons of Coal Being Washed into the Salish Sea

by Michael Riordan

Michael Riordan, author of “The Hunting of the Quark” and coauthor of “The Solar Home Book,” writes about science, technology and public policy from Orcas Island. He is preparing a series of articles about the scientific case against the coal terminal.

Buried deep at the end of a long, tedious report entitled “Vessel Traffic and Risk Assessment Study” on the Gateway Pacific Terminal (GPT) is an obscure appendix about the likely releases of coal dust and other bulk materials into Puget Sound and the Salish Sea.1 It turns out that a common practice on bulk coal carriers is to wash spilled coal and coal dust off the decks soon after leaving the dock.

I’d heard about this practice a few years ago from a former longshoreman who had worked at Westshore Terminals in Delta, BC. But here it was, actually staring at me in print — and with numbers included!

Coast Guard regulations forbid such deck washing until the bulkers are at least three miles from the nearest shoreline. Yet a large portion of the south Salish Sea just west of Whatcom County and north of the San Juan Islands — as well as most of the Strait of Juan de Fuca — lies over three miles from the nearest shore. So it’s perfectly legitimate to wash down the decks once there. But who is monitoring these vessels?

The amount of coal flushed into our once-pristine waters is significant, especially cumulatively. As the report states, “Conservatively, one should assume that there are still dry-cargo wash-downs occurring with all trips, with an average of 300 pounds of cargo being washed down with each transit.”2 For coal, the average is 382 pounds per vessel loading.3

Multiply that figure by the nearly 500 bulker visits per year anticipated for GPT, and you come up with 90 to 100 tons of coal flushed into our waters every year. Another method of estimating this amount using other data in the appendix reaches a similar result: about 100 tons of coal per year. And this amount would only add to the fugitive coal dust entering the Salish Sea from GPT operations in windy conditions, which I have previously estimated to be of a similar magnitude.4

This practice has been occurring for decades on bulkers leaving Westshore Terminals and another coal terminal near Vancouver. In fact, Lummi fishermen and women recently sent me photographs showing floating rafts of coal dust drifting past their vessels in US waters.

And earlier photos taken at Westshore by Paul K. Anderson show that plenty of coal dust accumulates on the decks of bulkers during loading (see photo above). Now I know where it ends up. One can only guess what the cumulative impacts of this coal on the Salish Sea have been.

No matter how you slice it, loading and shipping coal is a messy, dirty affair that will inevitably release hundreds of tons of coal into Salish Sea waters and thus have significant adverse impacts on them. Is that the price we have to pay for the few hundred jobs loading this coal that the GPT project might bring?


1. “Gateway Pacific Terminal Vessel Traffic and Risk Assessment Study,” Glosten Associates, 4 November 2014. Available online at See Appendix E: Charactization of Casualty Consequences, pp. ERC1 et seq., especially sections titled “Calculation of Transfer Error Rate and Spill Volume Probability Distributions — Dry Cargo,” pp. ERC28–35; and “Dry Cargo Sweeping as an Input,” pp. ERC35–38.

2. Ibid., p. ERC36.

3. Ibid., Table 26, p. ERC36. These figures will surely be much larger for Capesize and Panamax vessels.

4. Michael Riordan, “Windy Cherry Point: A Terrible Place to Build a Coal Terminal,” Whatcom Watch, March 2015, p. 1. Available online at

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