Photo by Elwood Brehmer/Alaska Journal of Commerce The Seward Coal Loading facility.

Photo by Elwood Brehmer/Alaska Journal of Commerce The Seward Coal Loading facility.

Permit to address coal spilled in Resurrection Bay

The Seward Coal Loading Facility has applied for a permit that will cover coal falling into Resurrection Bay.

The permit, which is being reviewed by the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, would allow the facility to legally drop coal into a 21-acre area of Resurrection Bay. The plant, operated by Aurora Energy Services for the Alaska Railroad Corporation, sometimes drops coal into the bay during transfer from the storage facility onto a ship.

The company will be required to monitor the accumulation on the sea floor and report it if the accumulation “exceeds a moderate measurable increase,” according to the permit.

The company was the target of a 2009 lawsuit filed by the Anchorage-based Alaska Community Action on Toxics and the national Sierra Club. Initially, the district court ruled that the company’s stormwater runoff permit covered the “incidental coal” being dropped into the bay.

The Ninth Circuit Court later reversed that decision, ruling that the company would have to apply for a pollutant discharge permit to continue to spill coal into the bay. Though the case was sent to the Supreme Court for review, the court demurred, leaving the Seward Coal Loading Facility to go through the process of either putting in spill prevention measures or obtaining a pollutant discharge permit.

The Sierra Club announced Tuesday that it had reached a settlement with Aurora Energy Services and the Alaska Railroad Corporation. The facility will be required to make improvements and fund conservation projects in the Resurrection Bay watershed, which will be carried out by the Kachemak Heritage Land Trust.

Pamela Miller, the executive director of Alaska Community Action on Toxics, said the settlement was a step in the right direction. The company will provide $10,000 to Kachemak Heritage Land Trust for its projects, she said, which the plaintiffs had no say on.

The settlement is a positive step but not everything the facility needs to do, Miller said.

“I think it has taken this lawsuit to get things moving with (Aurora Energy Services),” Miller said. “It’s really too bad that it takes a lawsuit to have those kinds of improvements. I would hope that they would initiate these things on their own and be a good neighbor to the community in Seward.”

Aurora Energy Services is a subsidiary of Usibelli Coal Mine, which operates a mine in Healy. The facility is currently idle, but the company is working on export contracts for 2016, said Lorali Simon, the vice president of external affairs for Usibelli.

Simon said a diver will go down to examine the floor of Resurrection Bay for the monitoring surveys. She said divers have done examinations in the past and not found any coal accumulation.

“A diver goes down there and visually inspects,” Simon said. “From the last dive survey, that’s exactly what (the diver) did. He took some pictures, did a grid across the sea floor and did a report on if he found anything.”

Under the proposed permit, Aurora Energy Services is required to do the survey in the first year of the permit, then once every five years.

If the report shows any increase above the baseline, the company will move into an adaptive management plan. If any survey shows four or more inches of coal coverage over an acre, the company will be required to submit a remediation plan to the Department of Environmental Conservation, Simon said in an email.

Russ Maddox, a Sierra Club volunteer in Seward and a witness in the lawsuit, said although the company has taken positive steps to prevent some of the spillage, the plan to deposit coal on the bottom of the bay is flawed.

“They’re measuring it by what accumulates on the bottom, which is silly, because the tidal movement will certainly affect that,” Maddox said. “We have two major tidal movements that come in and out of here every day.”

The second draft of the permit did include some revisions that Maddox said would help, such as requiring the company to report the sea floor monitoring sooner after the permit goes into effect. Initially, the permit did not require the company to report the sea floor coal levels until four years after the permit was issued; the most recent draft requires reporting after one year.

The company has made some repairs on the facility to help prevent spillage, including the installation of a drip pan beneath the conveyor belt to collect any coal that may fall, Simon said.

Simon said in an email that the company has spent approximately $1 million on upgrading the environmental control systems at the facility and plans to continue improvements in 2016.

Miller said she was glad the company is making adjustments to be a better neighbor to Seward’s citizens. She said she hopes the public does not blame the Sierra Club and the AK Community Action on Toxics for any economic impact from the current closure of the facility.

“I think the shutdown of this facility was certainly not a direct result of our lawsuit by any means, but I think it is an indication of the crash of the global market,” Miller said. “I don’t think the shutdown of that facility was in direct response to our actions. We simply want this facility to be a good neighbor to the people of Seward.”

Public comment on the permit is open until Dec. 21 and can be submitted to the Department of Environmental Conservation office in Anchorage. Mailed comments and requests must be postmarked before the deadline.


Reach Elizabeth Earl at

More in News

The Homer Spit is evacuated during the July 28 tsunami warning at about 10:50 p.m. (Photo by Sarah Knapp/Homer News)
Tsunami warning test scheduled for Wednesday morning

The National Weather Service will conduct a statewide test of the tsunami… Continue reading

A mock up of the Soldotna Field House. (Photo via City of Soldotna)
Soldotna designates field house funds

Construction of a field house in Soldotna took a step forward last… Continue reading

Rep. Ben Carpenter, R-Nikiski, speaks during a meeting of the House State Affairs committee on Tuesday, March 28, 2023 in Juneau, Alaska. (Mark Sabbatini/Juneau Empire)
Carpenter, Ruffridge target state finances

The central Kenai Peninsula’s representatives in the Alaska House of Representatives have… Continue reading

COVID-19. (Image courtesy CDC)
COVID-19: Local cases fall after last week’s spike

After a spike of 50 new COVID-19 cases was reported in the… Continue reading

A tripod set by the Soldotna and Kenai Rotary Clubs stands over the ice of the Kenai River in Soldotna, Alaska on Tuesday, March 28, 2023. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)
Local Rotary Clubs testing new contest for next winter

The Rotary Clubs of Soldotna and Kenai are performing a test in… Continue reading

Alaska State Troopers logo.
State Trooper convicted of attempted sexual abuse of a minor

Vance Peronto, formerly an Alaska State Trooper based in Soldotna, was convicted… Continue reading

Soldotna City Hall is seen on Wednesday, June 23, 2021 in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Soldotna moves ahead with staff recruitment strategies

Soldotna City Council members last week gave city administration a thumbs up… Continue reading

State representatives Tom McKay, R-Anchorage, and Andi Story, D-Juneau, offering competing amendments to a bill increasing the per-student funding formula for public schools by $1,250 during a House Education Committee meeting Wednesday morning. McKay’s proposal to lower the increase to $150 was defeated. Story’s proposal to implement an increase during the next two years was approved, after her proposed amounts totalling about $1,500 were reduced to $800.
Borough, Soldotna call on Legislature to increase school funding

The City of Soldotna last week became the latest entity to call… Continue reading

Kenai River Brown Bears goalie Nils Wallstrom celebrates winning a shootout over the Fairbanks Ice Dogs on Saturday, March 25, 2023, at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)
Brown Bears sweep Ice Dogs, move into 3rd place

The Kenai River Brown Bears earned a two-game sweep over the Fairbanks… Continue reading

Most Read