Politics Blog

Wind study suggests coal dust will be significant at Cherry Point port

A new study of the winds that would blow through a proposed coal terminal at Cherry Point claims to level what coal opponents would call still more environmental evidence against the project.

The proponent of Gateway Pacific Terminal has challenged the validity of the study, put forward by University of Washington professor Cliff Mass, because it was funded by terminal opponents.

The study was featured in a front-page article in the March edition of Whatcom Watch.

The article’s author, Michael Riordan, has written books with titles such as “The Hunting of the Quark,” but his topic in the monthly newspaper is down to earth: A recent scientific study concludes that the winds at Cherry Point blow especially strongly, prompting the study’s author to say it’s not a good place to build a coal terminal.

Coal dust off the open cars of moving trains has gotten more attention in the years since the coal terminal was proposed, but at issue in the study highlighted by Riordan in Whatcom Watch was the wind exposure of coal piles waiting at the terminal — up to five of them, in fact, as much as 2,500 feet long and 62 feet high. The 2011 permit application for Gateway Pacific Terminal says that as much as 2.75 million metric tons (3.03 million tons) of coal will be sitting in these piles, exposed to Cherry Point winds.

Riordan gives GPT the benefit of the doubt in his article and says that even if the Cherry Point terminal is 10 times better at suppressing coal dust than the Westshore coal terminal at Roberts Bank, B.C., it would put out 165 tons of coal dust per year at full capacity.

“This is not rocket science; it’s just simple arithmetic,” Riordan wrote in Whatcom Watch.

In a phone interview on Tuesday, March 3, Riordan said, “What really surprises me about this design is that they have open coal piles 60 feet high in what is one of the windiest locations in Washington state.”

The study on those winds was conducted by Mass, an atmospheric sciences professor, and an undergraduate student, Ryan Clark. (Clark was lead author.) Mass is a full professor who has been at the UW for almost 34 years. (Full disclosure: I took classes from Mass as a graduate student in atmospheric sciences, between 1993 and 1999. He was not my advisor but consulted on my uncompleted Ph.D. work.)

Mass presented his wind study, dated Feb. 3, on his popular “ Cliff Mass Weather Blog.” In his blog entry, headlined “ Strong Winds, Coal Dust and the Proposed Gateway Pacific Coal Terminal,” and in the study itself, Mass and Clark didn’t estimate how much coal dust would blow off the GPT piles — even Riordan said his foray into those estimates was “speculative.” Mass was clear, though, about his opinion of the terminal proposal:

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.

Clark and Mass’ study — an analysis of five years of wind data at three locations on Cherry Point — was funded by Research Now, which on its website explains why the nonprofit is needed alongside the more traditional methods of funding science research.

“Because no federal, state, or private funding mechanisms exist to provide the much-needed and timely research to inform these important policy and permitting decisions, we’re asking fellow citizens to crowd fund research that needs to be done now — not next year or later,” the site says.

Research Now cuts out a lot of the delays caused by the bureaucracy and long response times inherent in major science funding.

“We’re building Research Now to be a rigorous, high-quality, and objective non-profit research organization that identifies, funds and communicates best available research results in a timely way to policy and decision makers,” the website says.

Research Now succeeded in raising $50,000 through crowdfunding to pay for an upcoming seismic study of Cherry Point.

As the nonprofit’s website explains, the organization formed in response to Gateway Pacific Terminal’s application to build a terminal that would export up to 48 million metric tons (53 million tons) of coal a year to overseas markets. The founder of Research Now has a view of Cherry Point from her home on Orcas Island. That founder, Donna Gerardi Riordan, also happens to be the wife of Michael Riordan, the author of the Whatcom Watch article. Michael Riordan is a member of Research Now’s Science Advisory Board.

The Riordans are on the record as opponents of Gateway Pacific Terminal. In an April 2012 letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the couple wrote, “Our quality of life is at stake. As concerned citizens, we respectfully request that citizens of San Juan County be represented in the EIS process.”

The EIS, or environmental impact statement, is what it says it is: A study of the environmental impacts of a project that is written before permits are approved. The draft EIS for Gateway Pacific Terminal is expected to be completed in the first half of 2016, said Tyler Schroeder, EIS lead for GPT for Whatcom County.

More on Riordan’s stance on coal: He had an op-ed published in the New York Times on Feb. 12, 2014, “Don’t sell cheap U.S. coal to Asia:”

Opponents decry the prospect of the dirty, smelly, noisy trains blocking railroad crossings all across Washington State as they transport coal here from the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming. They also warn that coal dust from the terminal will pollute nearby waters and harm our dwindling populations of herring, threatened Chinook salmon and endangered killer whales.

But the main thrust of Riordan’s Times piece is more national and international:

Is our economy to become a resource economy like Australia’s, exporting mineral wealth to Asia in return for mining and shipping jobs, plus cheap consumer goods? Should we support this Faustian bargain by selling our coal so inexpensively? What kinds of jobs and living conditions do we really want to foster, and where? These are questions a rational and much-needed, 21st-century energy policy would address.

A great and growing plume of carbon dioxide continues to rise over Asia as transnational corporations are shifting manufacturing operations overseas. We can take a resolute stand at Cherry Point and begin to halt this boondoggle.

Riordan had an opinion published in 2012 in The Seattle Times:

An ill-conceived plan to ship more than 100 million tons of cheap coal annually to Asia epitomizes what has gone seriously awry with the U.S. economy. Corporations have already off-shored millions of manufacturing jobs to China. Now we are being asked to export mountains of coal to fuel its factories and power plants, adding inexorably to Earth’s carbon-dioxide burden.

The written evidence is clear: Riordan doesn’t want the coal terminal built at Cherry Point. That he would write a front-page article in Whatcom Watch is not to be questioned; WW makes no bones about being an activist/advocacy publication.

But of what of Research Now’s claim to be objective? It’s a question journalists ask routinely: Who gave you your funding, and what is their position on the issue?

Riordan said in our interview it’s easy in this study to separate opinion and fact.

The winds measured over five years at Cherry Point are “established fact,” Riordan said.

The study concludes:

Strong winds exceeding 33.6 mph at the piers have been observed roughly 2500 times over a five year period (2008-2013), with the predominant directions of strongest winds being northeasterly and southeasterly.

“Opinions can only go so far. Facts speak for themselves,” Riordan said.

The strongest winds were observed in the winter, with a tendency for the biggest blows to come out of the northeast — those Fraser River gap winds that we who live here know so well.

Is the study’s analysis of the pre-existing data, from 2008-13, compromised by Research Now’s position?

“I’d turn it over to Cliff and say, ‘Is he going to do something because his funders have a point of view? I don’t think so,’” Riordan said. “One of the reasons we went to Cliff is because he is the authority on northwest weather.”

Mass in an interview on Tuesday, March 3, had similar things to say.

“Obviously I’m not for this coal terminal. I’ve blogged about this a lot,” he said. “I’m not tampering with the data. Most of what’s in that report is not, ‘The coal terminal is bad,’ or anything. The report is not an advocacy report. The report is, ‘These are the winds.’”

A second report Clark and Mass intend to pursue won’t be advocacy either, but it will make the coal terminal look worse, Mass said. The first report showed wind speeds averaged over five minutes. The next report will show instantaneous winds, commonly known as gusts.

“It’s the instantaneous winds that raise dust,” Mass said. “You think the (first report) is scary; it’s nothing compared to the gust stuff. When you start seeing 50 to 60 mph winds—”

In response to Mass’ study and the Whatcom Watch article, GPT issued a page-long statement. In it, GPT pointed out that Research Now is an advocacy group “with no legitimate claim to objectivity.”

(GPT spokesman Craig Cole sent the statement. He said the content was a group effort, so I will refer to it as coming from “GPT” rather than just “Cole.”)

“The Mass study cannot be described as objective research because it is being done for funders with an agenda,” the GPT statement said. “Nor, to our knowledge, was it peer reviewed or otherwise held to the normal standards of scholarship.”

Mass confirmed the study was not peer reviewed.

GPT said the loading operation at the terminal dock will be “completely enclosed,” which makes the wind measurements taken over water for the Mass study irrelevant.

Riordan said in an interview he thought ruling out coal leakage at the loading site was “very optimistic.”

Here’s GPT’s description of how coal will move from piles to ships: “All conveying systems over ground are covered, and all systems above the water are completely enclosed, leaving no potential product exposed to winds at their pier. The only location where product remains uncovered is in the upland stock piles.”

GPT said the project will be held to stringent air quality requirements.

“Wind and air emissions issues are the subject of extremely thorough studies by knowledgeable experts as part of the federal and state EIS processes,” GPT writes. “Unlike the work that Mass did for Research Now, the formal EIS processes are intended by law to be objective and science-based without being tainted by advocacy.”

The GPT response said an air quality analysis has already been conducted on the site for the EIS. The statement claimed this report was available on the Department of Ecology’s project page, but I couldn’t immediately find it, nor could I immediately get the link from GPT.

“This air quality analysis indicated emissions from on-site activities and off-site commodity transport would not result in any off-site air pollutant concentrations exceeding the health-based ambient air quality standards for criteria pollutants,” the GPT response said.

A “criteria pollutant” would not be coal per se but would include small dust particles in general. Katie Skipper of the Northwest Clean Air Agency said she was not familiar with the “air quality analysis” GPT refers to, so she could not comment on it.

Riordan said GPT’s air study for the EIS wouldn’t be adequate.

“The standard in this area is that hey need five years worth of data, and they’re not going to get five years worth of data,” Riordan said.

GPT said data from the weather station is available for the past year and a half.

Schroeder at the county outlined how the EIS will incorporate air studies:

The EIS team will be using site-collected meteorological data (including wind), from the (GPT) meteorological station you refer to, as well as other sources of data from NW Clean Air and NOAA stations in the area. This meteorological data will be used for direct impact analyses of project-generated particulate matter, including coal dust. My understanding is the meteorological station on-site was installed in July, 2013.

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