“Clean Coal”? … An opinion

An opinion
Submitted by Faith Ross
February 23, 2015 3:14 p.m.

Coal transfer station -- Columbia Riverkeeper
Coal transfer station — Columbia Riverkeeper

Recently some interest has surfaced in the proposal that the Port of Fernandina import coal from Columbia. Each time a ‘coal terminal or coal transfer station’ is discussed, the mantra surrounding coal is that it is “clean” coal. So what does it mean to have ‘clean’ coal?

As evidenced by how differently all of us keep our houses clean, our definitions of “clean” may differ greatly. Most dictionaries show two definitions for the word ‘clean’. The first is generally listed as “free from dirt, marks, or stains”. But I prefer to remember that there is a second definition usually given for ‘clean’. This definition contains the words “morally uncontaminated, pure, or innocent”. Money generally does not enter into the discussion of the latter ‘clean”.

Coal dust surrounds a transport truck in Kentucky
Coal dust surrounds a transport truck in Kentucky

With the coal issue, to remain “morally uncontaminated”, one would need to admit that the basic chemical composition of coal has not changed. No matter how many times it is sprayed down, or what grade it is, coal is coal. According to multiple agencies and the Midwest Energy News, 2/20/2013, “known toxins in coal dust include arsenic, mercury, and other heavy metals”. And to tell you how little mercury it takes to contaminate water, it needs to be stated that 1/70th of a teaspoon of mercury deposited on a 25-acre lake can make the fish unsafe to eat. And we have no way of removing mercury from coal or coal dust.

Coal barge
Coal barge

Clearly the rising amounts of mercury in our waters and our fish have caused more than one agency to express concern. Recently the State of Florida has added a website recommending the safe amount of fish you can eat from the state’s various bodies of water due to its mercury content. For some of Florida’s bodies of water, more than one serving of fish per month is hazardous to your health due to high mercury levels. NIH, or the National Institute of Health, now has a video that it recommends parents and teachers show their children concerning mercury consumption and fish. Even in the children’s video, coal is one of the major contaminants shown. The young and infants can suffer debilitating neurological damage from mercury. Mothers pass it to their infants through breast milk. Children and adults become affected through contaminated fish or water. Let’s face it, coal is neither “pure” nor “innocent” when it comes to the definition of ‘clean’.

McDuffieWhen industry talks about ‘clean’ coal, the vision becomes one of dark, gleaming, black nuggets neatly stacked in coal cars. Coal dust somehow gets dropped from this picture. Tests run for Norfolk South Rail line, where coal is sprayed with binders, have shown that these agents only limit a portion of a coal train’s coal dust contamination. Visualizing coal cars shedding coal dust along tracks is a more accurate and realistic picture. According to the Norfolk South Rail Study, one pound of dust for each rail car is the general rule. Where the rail cars are sprayed, the wet coal dust seeps to the ground. And where the coal is stored, as in this case it would be at the Port, it must be continually sprayed with water to keep the dust from blowing elsewhere. Where will this coal dust-laden water go? Will we store the coal on barges and allow the rain to wash it into the river?

Are we really going to sacrifice our health and the health of our children with coal? Will we allow our fish to become inedible because someone is trying to convince us that coal is harmless?

A community discussion is taking place concerning these questions. If you would like to express your opinion, attend the City Planning Advisory Board meeting on Wednesday, March 4th at 5 pm in the City Hall Commissioners Chambers at 204 Ash St. Passage of a text amendment prohibiting a “coal transfer station” within the City of Fernandina has been submitted.

YouTube videos related to the topic:

Videos of Coal Train Dust

May 2011 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gjhnhZ0mFb4

November 2014 by Firefighters https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o4v5w-TuhWM

Coal Sprayer for Train – Note coal dust on ground under sprayers


Dust – Loading Coal onto Ship https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HrtQUEgYjKs

Editor’s Note: As an educator and reading specialist, Faith Ross has taught in Massachusetts, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. She and her husband Chip purchased their home in Fernandina 6 years ago and are now residents. Faith enjoys reading, walks on the beach, and dining at the many downtown restaurants that are within walking distance from her home. She also enjoy telling her frequent visitors and friends from out of town that Fernandina is an amazing place to live!

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Steve Crounse
Steve Crounse (@guest_29294)
8 years ago

Faith, Thank you for all you and Chip do to educate our citizens on the Port issues that will effect all our lives. We need to make sure every one understands the” double speak” those proposing Transporting Clean Coal, or a little more Natural Gas, or Chemicals through our City. After all, we already use them. I’ll see you March 4th at City Hall.

william davis
william davis (@guest_29319)
8 years ago

have you ever wondered how your electricity from FPL/SJRPP or JEANGS is generated ? hmm…

Dave Lott
Dave Lott(@dave-l)
8 years ago

William, I don’t think anyone questions the need for coal in our country’s overall energy needs. The question that I believe Faith is asking is that is it appropriate for the Port of Fernandina? All the studies show that the majority of coal dust spread occurs in the loading/unloading process and in the first mile of transport. The JEA facility over by Blount Island was set up with a conveyor system for the off-loading of coal to its storage area and is located solely within an industrial area. Yes, to some degree it is the NIMBY (not in my back yard) attitude, but there is a question of appropriateness. The Port Master Plan document took a bad situation and made it worse in stating the coal would be off-loaded into trucks rather than rail cars. Read the N-S Study and see the impact of coal dust on the railways/rail beds as well as the surrounding area. Is that what we want to subject our community to?

Peggy Bulger
Peggy Bulger(@peggy-bulger1949gmail-com)
8 years ago


Thank you for your clear and concise text concerning this important issue to all of us who make Amelia Island our home. . . Dave is exactly right that this stance has nothing to do with denying the need for multiple energy sources for the nation, but everything to do with how the Port of Fernandina will exist within this fragile community. The awards garnered this year for our Convention and Visitors Bureau and the astounding numbers on how much revenue is generated by Amelia Island tourism should be a clarion call to all of us. The threat of environmental disaster that emanate from the Port’s master plan to transport coal, gas, and chemicals through our historic district and pristine island are terrifying. I say, let the Port rethink it’s purpose to be compatible with a small tourism mecca and National Historic Preservation District that is a gem.

Jerry Torchia
Jerry Torchia (@guest_29575)
8 years ago

Excellent article. People can have all sorts of opinions about this, but as you demonstrate, facts are facts.
Thank you.
Jerry Torchia

David Olson
David Olson (@guest_29579)
8 years ago

There is another meaning of clean coal. As a retired Professional Environmental engineer, my understanding of clean coal also refers to the quality of the emissions to the atmosphere from coal fired electric power plants. The emissions contain pollutants. Those pollutants include particulate, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, mercury and metals. Today Federal and State laws require high efficiency removal of those pollutants. However carbon dioxide, a pollutant and global warming gas, is not removed and 100 % passes into the atmosphere. Today while great effort is being made to find a technical and economic means of removing the carbon dioxide, it remains unsuccessful. So clean coal is a hope for the future. Perhaps the distance future. Until then the burning of coal can not be called clean coal.

Christine Corso
Christine Corso (@guest_29596)
8 years ago

For those of you who agree that this Island and the City with its historic district matter and need to be cherished and protected, please take time to watch and listen to the TED lecture via the link below.


Steve Crounse
Steve Crounse (@guest_29612)
8 years ago

Christine, I think every one should listen to this TED talk. Especially the Nashua County Ocean Highway & Port Commissioners. ” A sense of Place Matters” Lets all work towards a better place, Our Community. Thanks