By BARBARA G. ELLIS, Ph.D
The possibility of fires at coal terminals should be a major factor, seemingly ignored, in the current federal/state investigation involving Ambre Energy, Kinder Morgan, or any coal company seeking site permits at Boardman, Longview, and Columbia County—or at Coos Bay. They are unlike any other fire and cannot be extinguished by water. Water only sets off explosions and intensifies a blaze.
A contributing factor, equally major, is that most fire departments near new coal-storage terminals lack training programs, equipment, and supplies vital to any firefighter. That is the warning and recommendations issued in a recent national report from the Centers of Disease Control and the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health.
The report was spurred by the deaths of two young South Dakota firefighters who lost their lives in 2011 when they poured water down a storage silo holding Powder River Basin coal. It set off an explosion that intensified the flames. Neither they nor their fellow firefighters had coal-fire training. Nor did their station have the special haz-mat equipment (monitors, piercing rods, etc.), or special coal-fire chemicals (F-500, etc.).
As the U.S. Department of Energy officials has pointed out:
“Spontaneous combustion has long been recognized as a fire hazard in stored coal. Spontaneous combustion fires usually begin as “hotspots” deep within the reserve of coal. The hotspots appear when oxygen seeps into stored coal. Heat generated by the oxidation then initiates the fire.”
Once a “hotspot” finally explodes, it ignites a fierce and almost unquenchable fire engulfing whole areas, such as the uncontained 100-year-old mine fire that still burns in Glenwood Springs CO. It surfaced in 2002 and set off a 12,000-acre, $6.5 million forest fire. Environmentally, a coal fire of any kind—mine, terminal, barge, train—emits “a haze of soot, carbon monoxide and compounds of sulfur and nitrogen…also releases arsenic, fluorine and selenium.”
Wyoming’s Powder River coal, at issue in the Pacific Northwest, is significantly even more volatile than coal mined east of the Mississippi River. Indeed, in weighing the speed of a coal-ignited explosion (the Kst value) leading to a fire, researchers for Western Kentucky Energy Corporation, noted: “… the explosibility of PRB coal can be up to two times that of bituminous coal.” Those familiar with this sub-bituminous coal say that it cannot be stored for more than 14 days without hotspots appearing.
Moreover, when coal ignites after quietly smoldering as a “hotspot” under deliveries of fresh coal—even under Ambre’s proposed covered terminal—it requires highly trained coal-fire personnel to extinguish the blaze. Indeed, utility companies storing PRB coal have been so concerned about this hazard that they formed a group called PRB Coal Users’ Group. They have on-call coal-firefighting providers such as F.E. Moran Special Hazard Systems and Hazard Control Technologies.
Such firms exist because coal companies can’t rely on local firefighters dealing with 26-foot mountains of stored coal. Or stored inside terminals—or silos, as was the fatal case in Britton, SD. Water sets off such explosions and additional fire because “heat ignites floating coal dust in the air.” Water also makes remaining coal unmarketable.
Those specialty squads use state-of-the-art tools such as thermal monitors and infrared scanners to check hot spots in stored coal and carbon monoxide levels, respectively. (This is a 24/7 job—without smoke/coffee breaks.) Hazard-mitigation systems use the new F-500 agent and piercing rods that must be expertly guided through a coal pile to find a hotspot.
In the Columbia Gorge, the likelihood is that Ambre and Kinder Morgan probably will rely on the local fire department such as Boardman’s seven firefighters or those near Port Westward—none trained for coal fires—to handle a Glenwood Spring-like conflagration. That means local taxpayers will wind up footing the bill for training, equipment, and supplies. And fighting fires.
Ambre’s vow of covering its terminal—as well as barges, trains—to keep the Gorge’s ferocious winds from blowing toxic coal dust into communities, will hardly block oxygen seepage into stored coal. If coverage were remotely successful, it would have been done decades ago by Eastern coal companies. They still transport and store most coal “uncovered” because of combustion and subsequent ruinously expensive litigation over fires, environmental damage, as well as losses of life and property damage.
As for the Port Westward site—including Kinder Morgan’s proposed terminal—Ambre Energy officials say it will only include a shiploader and its dock to move coal from barges to ocean-going freighters bound for Asian markets. Yet twice last year at Longview (April and November), a shiploader’s machinery and conveyor belt caught fire moving grain to freighters. The prospect of a coal fire spreading from shiploader to a freighter’s hold and back to barges—and nearby vegetation—and timber near Clatskanie and Ranier—in dry months, is entirely possible.
Before any permits are issued for Ambre or any other coal shipper to construct and utilize terminals in the Gorge, a thorough investigation must be done by federal and state agencies about their fire-protection histories for terminals and surrounding environment. Moreover, affected communities up and down the Gorge need to ask these vital questions of Ambre and Kinder Morgan: Are they willing to underwrite all the expenses involved in training, equipping, and supplying local fire departments to fight coal-storage fires? Are they willing to pay the wages of local firefighters involved in putting out a coal fire? Are they willing to pay for all damages to neighboring properties if a coal fire should spread beyond their company fences?
Any promises to take care of these responsibilities by Ambre and Kinder Morgan should be put in a contractual document with those affected communities long before permits are issued. And state and federal agencies need to consider the coal-fire factor in issuing those permits.
Barbara G. Ellis, Ph.D, a former journalism professor at Oregon State University, is now a principal at Ellis & Associates, LLC of Portland. She is an environmentalist, a member of the Columbia Gorge Protection Alliance, and lives in Southeast Portland.