A cloud of pellet dust rises from a ship being loaded at Westview Terminal.

Trouble with the terminal: Frustrations abound surrounding Westview Terminal

With more than 200 registered complaints in less than six months, frustration with Westview Terminal is beginning to reach a boiling point.

With more than 200 registered complaints in less than six months, frustration with Westview Terminal’s operations is beginning to reach a boiling point.

As those on the west end of Prince Rupert continue to struggle with pellet dust and noise devastating their quality of life, making them worry for their health and keeping them awake at all hours, allegations are rampant of both Pinnacle Renewable Resources and the Prince Rupert Port Authority — the body that both oversaw the environmental assessment and acts as terminal landlord — breaking their promises to the community.

“We were told a lot of things during the (environmental assessment) process and there were a lot of promises to the community about dust, noise and other things … it is very frustrating,” said Coun. Anna Ashley on June 9.

“Promises have been broken and statements have been changed … part of my view is blocked, I’ve got dust coming onto my house, it stinks and it is noisy all night long,” said Dan Harris, claiming he can no longer enjoy the deck of his Second Ave. West home.

Dust in the wind

The environmental assessment screening report for Westview Terminal, commissioned for the Prince Rupert Port Authority (PRPA) and completed by Golder Associates on May 7, 2012, states, “the overall potential for significant adverse effects to air quality is considered to be low and the impact to air quality is expected to not be significant”.

But dustfall data taken in April and May show that is not the case.

To monitor dustfall at Westview Terminal, Pinnacle has a number of dustfall collection canisters situated around the property. The canisters look like large, plastic Mason jars placed on top of metal rods, with the opening end facing the sky and a solvent inside to collect dust. From these, samples are taken once per month as per the standards set by the B.C. Ministry of Environment. The jars collect both organic material, such as pellet dust, and inorganic material, such as road dust, and an independent third party analyzes the data.

Michael Gurney, manager of corporate communications for the PRPA, said the amount of organic and non-organic material collected by the monitoring system in April exceeded the guideline set by the Ministry of Environment.

Throughout 2014, dustfall canisters at four sites around Westview Terminal recorded levels under the B.C. guidelines of 1.75mg/dm2/day, with the exception of February and April. In February, the site closest to the terminal recorded readings just over 2 mg/dm2/day while in April three sites recorded readings of approximately 3 mg/dm2/day and the site closest to the terminal recorded more than 5 mg/dm2/day.

Measured particulate matter, however, has continually been significantly below the provincial guidelines.

The number of complaints reported to the port authority were highest in May — peaking at 27 during the week of May 4 — but dustfall data for the month is unavailable. Basset explained the lack of data by noting “someone took down the canisters”, although they have since been replaced.

However, Gurney said the port was “extremely concerned” about the levels in April 2014, enough so that they have begun their own dust collection and monitoring program.

“We are doing our best to make sure the measurement systems are comprehensive and extensive,” he said.

Already the information is showing almost half of all dustfall near the terminal collected is organic. A May 16 sample was made up of 40 per cent wood shavings, 30 per cent pine pollen and 10 per cent other pollen, with insect parts, glue-like substance, magnetic metal shavings and unidentified anisotropic crystals making up five per cent each. A second sample from Moresby Pond on May 17, however, showed 90 per cent was pollen while the remainder was naturally occurring organic matter from the pond ecosystem.

For those living near the terminal, the high levels of dust is not a surprise.

“I’ve spent a considerable amount on my house, like a lot of people in the area have, to enjoy my deck and my view,” said Harris, noting the dust is not only painful on the eyes but on the nose as well.

“I can live with [the terminal] being there, but not if it stinks so much I can’t sit outside. Not if there’s dust like there is.”

The issue of smell is one that Graham Ave. resident Kevin Newton knows all too well. His home is one of the closest to the terminal, looking straight on to Westview Terminal silos.

“Some pellets are so smelly, it knocks you off you’re feet,” he said.

While they may not live in the area, Prince Rupert city councillors have seen and smelled the effects of Westview Terminal firsthand. In fact, Mayor Jack Mussallem told Pinnacle Renewable Energy’s vice-president of sales and logistics Vaughan Bassett there isn’t a single member of council that hasn’t received complaints about Westview Terminal during the Pinnacle representative’s presentation to the city on June 9.

“It’s getting ridiculous. This so-called poster project of the port has turned into a nightmare for the residents of the area,” said Coun. Barry Cunningham.

“Whether the dust containers are collecting it or not, I’ve seen pictures, I’ve been down there and saw dust swirling around the ships,” said Coun. Ashley.

“It is not just a little bit of dust, it’s clouds of dust on certain days … maybe you’re not aware of how bad it looks from our point of view,” said Coun. Joy Thorkelson, who echoed her disappointment in the company’s failure to meet statements made in the environmental assessment.

A Material Safety Data Sheet created by Universal Forest Products, a U.S. company that manufactures and distributes wood and wood-alternative products, notes “wood dust is irritating to the nose, throat and lungs” and “some species may cause allergic respiratory reactions with asthma-like symptoms in sensitive individuals”.

Menn Biagtan, the BC Lung Association’s program manager, said any particulate matter inhaled at a high level would be detrimental to people’s health, especially in people who are vulnerable to its effects like individuals with asthma.

“If the levels are really exceedingly high, then even normal people who are doing activities in their homes can also be affected,” Biagtan said.

Newton said he worries about the health issues that could arise from prolonged exposure to wood pellet dust and Water Street resident Ken Shaw said the dust does have an impact.

“If you’re breathing it for 15 minutes and the rest of the day is fine, that doesn’t mean it’s good,” said Shaw.

Despite the concerns of the community and council, Bassett told Prince Rupert councillors that Westview Terminal has some of the best available technology to mitigate dust when wood pellets are both incoming and outgoing.

When the product arrives at the terminal by rail it’s unloaded onto a receiving system that drops wood pellets onto the conveyor system. The conveyors are enclosed, and slowly move up above the terminal’s four silos. Once there, an enclosed bucket elevator system moves the product vertically and drops it the shortest distance possible into a silo. To ensure wood pellets aren’t dropping too quickly, there is a bean ladder with baffled transitions to slow the product’s movement to the bottom.

“The secret to gentle handling is to move the product very slowly and to ensure the drops are not excessive,” said Bassett.

“The whole system moves somewhere near walking speed.”

To prevent dust during ship loading, a cascading chute feeds vessels. Bassett said the chute is like a series of buckets with the product spilling from one to the other until it reaches the bottom. The largest drop in the system is approximately one foot.

Despite all of this, there has been thick wood pellet dust seen on top of silos. Bassett acknowledged this should not happen and said it is caused by the product being blown out of the silos by roof fans.

“We are looking into a fix that could involve running the fans more slowly for longer periods to get the same job done, but with reduced noise, dust and plume concentration,” he said.

Bassett said the smell is caused by the silos’ aeration process, which keeps the temperature down while the pellets are being stored. Although he acknowledged the smell, Bassett noted the odour isn’t noxious, as there are no additives in the pellets and the smell is just compressed wood.

“I believe that an unfair association has been allowed to develop between the existence of a wood smell and the belief that this is harmful. It’s not,” Bassett said.

Bassett ensured Pinnacle will increase its due diligence to reduce dust, linking many of the problems to training issues. He also said a dust suppressant will be applied to the road leading to the terminal in the near future while more dust level measurement points will be put in the community.

Noisy neighbour

But it’s not just the outside environment being affected — people living around the terminal are being hit by the operation inside their homes.

Noise from the terminal has been an ongoing issue for nearby residents since construction began. Westview Terminal’s operational schedule has day shifts running from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and afternoon shifts running until 1 a.m.

Bassett acknowledged the terminal is much louder than the company expected, saying noise was their biggest concern. He told council that Pinnacle is considering changing a few of the terminal’s systems to reduce noise and will reach out to Prince Rupert Grain for additional mitigation ideas. Pinnacle is also considering putting in shrubs and trees as natural sound abatement between the neighbourhood and the rail tracks.

But for Newton, who lives in close quarters of the operation, the noise is interfering with his ability to sleep.

“If they have to load a ship, they’re running it 24 hours … they want to get the ship out,” he said, adding the banging and crashing sounds of train shunting often keeps him up at night.

“There might be a few days off here and there. When they’re not loading a ship, they’re unloading rail cars into the towers,” added Harris of the noise.

Coun. Cunningham noted noise is more predominate when loading is taking place, claiming there have been “numerous times” that loading took place through the night with special permission because of favourable weather conditions.

“Weather conditions in Prince Rupert are probably not what you would like to have for wood pellet loading, so you’re going to be continuing to load throughout the night,” he said.

“The control of noise propagation in your (environmental assessment) said you would only work between week day hours, but now you’re working way past that.”

Bassett’s rebuttal was that the terminal has the ability to load ships from 8 a.m. to 1 a.m., and the company did voluntarily stop railcar discharging that creates loud

sounds.

“We only use that when we have time-sensitive work to perform, like loading vessels. Outside of that, if we need to work afternoon shifts, we work until 10 p.m. Our terminal management is already looking at different ways to configure the shifts to minimize the impact on the neighbourhood without losing productivity,” he said.

But Shaw, who was an outspoken opponent of the location of the export facility during the environmental assessment process, said the operation works when it can despite its schedule.

“When the weather’s good and they have an opportunity, it’s pretty compelling to keep running. It makes it difficult for them, but that’s why it shouldn’t have been there. Being [situated on that location] doesn’t give you the flexibility in how you manage your operation,” he said.

As for noise from the terminal when ship loading isn’t taking place, Pinnacle had sound mitigation experts survey the operation to look for the most significant sources of noise spill into the community. Bassett said they narrowed it down to the motors on top of the bucket elevator towers and have since built and installed sound abatement structures over them. Within the next few weeks the same experts will conduct post-installation surveys to see how effective the barriers are and, if they believe it is needed, what can be done to further improve them.

Allowing it to happen

Frustration in the community, however, isn’t focused solely at Pinnacle.

For some, the finger of blame points in the direction of Atlin Terminal and the Prince Rupert Port Authority. The PRPA is not only the landlord for Westview, but is responsible to enforce the conditions of the environmental assessment it approved. The assessment was conducted under the Canada Port Authority Environmental Assessment Regulations, and when the port gave the green light to the project it stated approval was subject to strong mitigation and enforcement measures designed to make sure the operation fulfilled its environmental, health and safety performance requirements.

Some say the port isn’t following up on their promised enforcement.

“I really believe, as a city council, we need to get these parties together and get this resolved. I don’t know how we can hold them accountable; they seem to think they are above everyone. But it’s time we dragged them in here and got them to talk,” said Coun. Cunningham.

While calling the port’s commitment to enforcement into question now, the City of Prince Rupert formally declined to participate in the environmental assessment working group — despite invitations to do so by the Prince Rupert Port Authority.

Shaw notes that while there may be more than 200 complaints, both the port and the company are being reactive instead of being proactive in addressing them.

“It’s like they’re not responding until there’s complaints. People have to complain loud and hard to get a response,” he said.

But Gurney said the port authority takes concerns seriously and is eager to see issues resolved at Westview Terminal.

“Our environmental monitoring program is proactive and aggressive. Using video cameras, noise level meters and air quality sensors, the port authority maintains vigilance over Westview Terminal 24-hours a day,” he said, adding the port authority shares Pinnacle’s vision of a clean and low-impact facility.

“In case people are concerned that the level of our intensity around monitoring and resolving issues in conjunction with Pinnacle is a short-term solution, it’s not. This is an ongoing relationship and we want Pinnacle to succeed just as much as we want them to find ways of becoming the clean and high-functioning terminal that they anticipated building … I would characterize the communication as ongoing … we recognize that some work has already taken place to manage these terminal-related issues and we expect Pinnacle will continue to take steps to address these concerns.”

In an effort to address concerns with Port of Prince Rupert terminals, the PRPA set up a community comment forum to receive feedback that it then posts online. With the input, Gurney said the port takes action to resolve concerns.

“We treat the concerns from the community as data that’s equally valid to the scientific data we’re collecting,” said Gurney, who noted the port’s manager of community relations follows up with each complaint and informs residents what steps Pinnacle and the PRPA operations department have taken to address their concerns.

As well as dust collection and particulate, Gurney said the PRPA also monitors sound from the terminal.

“Although noise has fluctuated and has been a concern, there has been an improvement with the acoustical deflector,” Gurney said.

But for Harris, the experience with Pinnacle has made it hard to believe future developments being proposed on PRPA land will follow promised mitigation and environmental protection measures when terminals that currently operate do not.

“I’ve lived here for 38 years and I’m sickened to see our waterfront turned into that … it’s obscene,” he said.

A promise to improve

While dust, noise and smell continue to be a concern, Bassett said Pinnacle Renewable Energy is committed to making its $42-million Westview Terminal a good industrial partner in the community.

“We are listening to nearby residents. I do think that they should expect Westview Terminal to work diligently to minimize any disruptive effects on their lives, and we do. We are an integral part of the community and we want to be the best neighbours that we can be,” he said.

Among the improvements Bassett pointed to, since the terminal began operation, are the hiring of sound mitigation experts, the installation of sound abatement structures over the motors on top of the bucket elevators and reducing the hours of the evening shift to reduce noise. In the future, he said the company will be focusing on enhanced training, potentially planting trees and shrubs to further reduce noise in residential areas and enhancing the dust monitoring system with the installation of additional collection points.

However, there may be more months of issues ahead. Bassett said Pinnacle expects to be commissioning Westview Terminal until the end of the year, and anticipates most issues will be under control by then.

The company is planning a community walkthrough event for July or August to allow those interested to visit the wood pellet shipping facility and see how operations work.