While Ridley Terminals undertakes a multi-million dollar expansion to double its coal-handling capacity, new evidence shows current operations may be damaging the marine environment of Hecate Strait.
Documents and photographs obtained by The Northern View appear to validate allegations of purposeful coal dumping into the waters off Ridley Island and knowingly allowing coal-laden water to cover the shoreline. In fact, documents indicate nearly every environmental protection measure RTI says is being taken is not.
Perhaps the most worrisome of the allegations includes eyewitness accounts and documents indicating coal is deliberately being dropped into the harbour outside of RTI.
Photographs show RTI’s belting system, the conveyers that move coal from the stockyard to the docks where it can be loaded onto vessels, allows coal to fall onto the ground throughout the yard. Pictures show the belts are not enclosed anywhere onsite, and it is said this includes the belting system running over the ocean.
“There’s a certain amount of coal that sticks to the belts, and as it makes its run underneath the belt back it falls off… There’s coal just falling everywhere… Everywhere there’s a corner it just builds and falls off and jams belts, and then it falls into the ocean,” a reliable source, who has authorized access to the site, told The Northern View.
Because the belts only move in one direction, a number of on-site sources allege the belt system at RTI causes even more coal to enter Hecate Strait. Several sources say they have witnessed a number of instances where the system, which weighs how much coal is needed to fill a vessel, weighs incorrectly leaving excess coal stranded either on the belts above the ocean or on the loading docks.
“There’s a series of weights [on the belts], and there’s someone on the boats, but it’s pretty easy to miss by 20 to 30 tonnes. They can’t back the belts up and dump it somewhere. They just dump it on the docks,” an eyewitness said.
Witnesses claim the dock’s containment system is laughable, consisting of pieces of wood and tarps that allow coal to either slip through the dock’s metal floor grating or through the open spaces along the rail of the dock. One source confirmed that once coal is on the dock it is transferred by skid-steer loaders to a location near the ocean’s shoreline, as there is no other method to remove it from docks.
Another eyewitness said there have been many instances where there has been an excess of coal after loading a vessel with operators picking up the coal with the ship loader, a piece of machinery able to move in all directions, and deliberately dropping the coal into the water.
This would come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the Health, Safety, Environment and Quality Policy signed by RTI’s president and chief operating officer George Dorsey, which states there are only minor environmental risks facing the company. The policy describes procedures put in place to ensure a clean operation at RTI, stating, “to protect the rich coastal environment, RTI has made every effort to keep coal where it belongs-either on the terminal site, or in the ships which carry it to customers”.
When questioned by The Northern View about the concerns raised by multiple sources regarding RTI’s containment systems and dust-mitigation measures, Dorsey declined further comment and ended the interview.
“When they come out of the shadows, I’ll be glad to talk to them,” Dorsey said.
Michelle Bryant, Ridley Terminals Inc. corporate affairs manager, said she cannot say there is zero coal reaching the ocean but that RTI does, “everything we can to make sure it doesn’t”. Bryant confirmed conveyer belts on-site are not enclosed and admitted there is coal underneath the belts in the yard. However, she is unaware if the same types of belts run over the ocean.
“I know there’s different sizes of belts that we have that go out to the ships than we have in the yards,” she said.
When questioned what happens with excess coal on belts or docks, Bryant denies that such a situation ever occurs.
“There is no excess coal on the belts. When we’re loading, the coal is placed on the ship,” she said.
Concerns have also been raised about left-over residue on the belt system and docks being hosed directly into the ocean before a different type of coal is moved on them. When questioned on what RTI does in between moving different assortments of coal, Bryant said she was unsure.
On-site sources also call into question RTI’s other environmental protection measures meant to keep coal out of the ecosystem, such as the lack of a closed-drainage system.
RTI maintains that its operations include a closed-loop system of drainage ditches surrounding the terminal. This system is meant to ensure runoff created from coal being sprayed down to prevent dust, or rain water that gets in contact with coal and runs onto the ground, trickles into ditches where it can travel into one of RTI’s settling ponds. When coal-laden water reaches these ponds, coal fines are recovered and the water can be recycled, preventing any coal from reaching the ocean. But this may not be the case.
Sources who have been on RTI’s premises claim there is no closed-loop system of drainage ditches around the coal terminal, and photographs obtained by The Northern View appear to show coal-laden water flowing directly into the ocean.
Furthermore, the photographs show the settling pond, where water is supposed to gather during the recycling process, never changes levels. Photos show a near-empty pond, despite the fact that operations are well underway.
Witnesses claim one of the settling ponds was filled in to accommodate the expansion, as were the drainage ditches on the west side of Yard 4. Sources say neither exist at RTI anymore.
This worries one source, who said there have been many occasions where equipment on the site has leaked quantities of oil, which without a proper drainage system would be leaking into the ocean, as well.
Bryant said RTI’s drainage system is working effectively.
“Any water that comes from our site goes through the drainage system into our closed-loop settling ponds. From the ponds we will collect the water, it will be filtered through our filtration system and pumped back into either the spray towers or any wash stations on site,”she said.
When contacted by The Northern View, Des Nobles from the TBuck Suzuki Foundation in Prince Rupert was all but surprised.
Nobles said he has been approached by a number of individuals who were employed at RTI over the years who have made similar accusations.
Many are unsure of the damage coal or coal particles in the ocean mean to the marine environment. There is little research on the effects of coal and coal dust on waterways and the ecosystems they support.
When approached by The Northern View on what this could mean to the marine ecosystem, north coast World Wildlife Fund manager Mike Ambach said if the allegations are correct it could potentially mean marine life in the area are ingesting coal particles. That marine life could then be digested by other, larger predators and move up the food chain.
“Most of the research done on the effects of coal on the marine environment focuses on the physical impacts, which tend to be in near proximity of wherever the coal getting into the marine environment would occur… Even if you have impacts happening at a geographically small scale because of the complexity of these currents [near RTI]…those impacts can have a footprint which is greater than might be assumed,” Ambach said.
While studies executed on the effects of coal being directly dumped into the ocean are hard to come by, a British Columbian evaluation of coal dust dispersal was completed near the Westshore Coal Terminal in Vancouver. Ryan Johnson and Marc Bustin of the University of British Columbia performed a 22-year assessment on coal dust in the area and saw a steady accretion of coal dust on the sea floor. The pair found coal concentrations in marine sediments doubled in the time of the evaluation, increasing from 1.8 per cent in 1977 up to 3.6 per cent in 1999, which they concluded could harm the flora and fauna living on the sea bottom. Oxidizing coal particles reduce oxygen for marine life such as clams, mussels, barnacles, and crab larvae, with the effects being felt all the way up the food chain. The bottom-dwelling invertebrates are a large part of the seasonal food source for salmon and herring. However, coal particles in the ocean are usually within a few hundred metres of the terminal.
“If you were to live in near-proximity to a place that emits coal dust or any type of contaminate for a long period and you ended up digesting that, would it be bad? Yes, it would. How bad? Probably you’re going to find out too late,” Ambach said when asked of the severity marine life being in the proximity of coal particles would be.
While the study wasn’t written on quantities of coal finding its way to the marine environment, it does show that coal dust, a fine powder form of coal created by the crushing, grinding or pulverizing, can negatively affect the marine environment leaving little doubt that high concentrations of coal are even more likely to cause damage.
William Beynon, fisheries manager of the Metlakatla First Nations, told The Northern View he and his team noticed surface fish smelt were covered in black dots upon gathering samples of surf smelt in the waters near RTI in early April.
“We started scraping [the smelts] to see if the black stuff was just on the outside of the fish, but no, it was underneath the skin,” he said.
The black spots were observed everywhere on the smelts, not just above the lateral line where spots or coloured markings on fish are more prevalent.
Beynon said he is not aware of any fish with a black-spotted pattern similar to the samples Metlakatla took near RTI had.
“Biologists that are specialized in this area see the samples and think it’s really weird,” Beynon said.
According to the Fisheries and Oceans Canada management plan on surface smelts, the minor fin-fish are “important prey for larger predatory fish” such as, salmon, harbour seals and birds.
Beynon said Metlakatla Fisheries collected a number of smelt with black spots, and have sent away samples to determine what the marks indicate.
This is the first year Metlakatla took samples of smelts near RTI. The group was subcontracted by an environmental group to assist with sampling requested by a company interested in developing in the proximity of RTI.
Investigation into the spots on the fish caught outside of Ridley Terminals were ongoing as of press time, but Tony Pitcher of the University of British Columbia Fisheries Centre said the spots in the photo are most likely a flatworm parasite called Paravortex or a fluke parasite called Cryptocotyle.
While Ambach said he doesn’t want to dismiss the harm associated with any contaminate reaching the ocean and how it could impact marine life, he said the fact the Skeena estuary is in the tidal range of RTI is a concern, a point Nobles also brought to the forefront.
The evaluation completed by Johnson and Bustin found widespread coal dust on the surface water near the terminal, and was noticed as far away as 200 metres east of the vessel loading dock. The pair pointed out that ordinary tidal currents could disperse the particles 2.5 miles from the facility, having the capability of going as far as 56 miles under extreme conditions. Assuming similar conditions are possible on Ridley Island, coal dust could undoubtedly be reaching the Skeena estuary.
An estuary is a partially-enclosed body of water where freshwater from rivers or streams meet and mix with salt water from the ocean. Estuaries are highly-productive ecosystems, dense with living organisms and strongholds for biodiversity. Estuaries help regulate tidal systems, and are also important for life cycles of marine life.
The Skeena estuary, located close to RTI, is important for the lifecycle of juvenile salmon, said Ambach, not only salmon near Prince Rupert.
“By some estimates, up to 80 per cent of commercially-fished species spend some part of their lifecycle in an estuary. Keeping an estuary healthy is an economic imperative,” Ambach said.
“If you lose the salmon rearing value that an estuary plays, then it will have cascading effects up and down the river.”
Ambach did say there needs to be more studies on the Skeena estuary, which is considered to be one of the most complex on the province’s coast.
“There’s a fair amount of research there that says estuaries are critical to the functioning of marine eco-systems. They are not replaceable… If we’re to get a better understanding of the impacts of our activities, either permitted or not, then we need to get a better understanding of the value of what’s being impacted,” Ambach said.
Both Ambach and Nobles admitted they’re not aware exactly how coal would affect the estuary, stating it depends greatly on the different toxins associated with the various types of coal. Both said a worry is the accumulative impacts coal reaching the marine environment could have along with other developments in the area and potential future developments.
“We still have a long way to go before we have a firm baseline understanding of just how much impact the region can take before what it provides for us starts to become compromised.
“It’s not like a light switch; It’s not on and off and suddenly it’s not there. It’s a gradual degradation,” Ambach said.
“Coal in and of itself is not necessarily a noxious material until you dump tons of it and smother the bottom of the ocean.
“It’s the additives that are sprayed onto the coal to bind it and keep it from blowing, like fire retardants,” Nobles said.
“Anything we put in the marine environment becomes an issue in terms of the amounts. It’s when you start looking at large amounts and accumulative impacts over time that it all presents an issue.”
Aside from coal and coal particles reaching the ocean, sources also claim the amount of coal dust in the air at the site is atrocious.
“Sometimes it’s hard enough to cause black outs,” said one source.
“On an early morning when the sun is first breaking there… It looks like the place is in a fog. As the light breaks and the still air moves a bit it starts to dissipate. There’s a point there where the whole place is enshrouded in a fog of coal dust.”
Dorsey said however, he is proud of the track record RTI has in terms of coal dust-mitigation measures.
“This is an industrial yard and the problems have not been significant,” he said.
Bryant said RTI has always stated it cannot mitigate 100 per cent of the coal dust on site.
“We do understand that dust can be a problem when all weather patterns are lined up appropriately. We take all measures we effectively can take to make sure dust stays within the stockyard,” Bryant said.
But those on-site refute those statements, attributing the large quantities of coal dust to more failures on RTI’s part to follow measures the company says it is, such as the alleged absence of regular spraying of coal piles at RTI.
“There apparently is a shower system in place, but it’s never on… If there was a dust problem at one point they used to turn the spray towers on. I haven’t seen it in a year-and-a-half,” one source said, adding some sprayheads were removed entirely.
“There’s no spraying system on the inside of the stockyard. They’ve torn them all down. The inner part never gets sprayed.”
RTI assures piles of coals being stored in RTI’s stockyard are dampened with water from automatic sprayheads to prevent any wind erosion. RTI says weather parameters likely to make coal dust particles airborne are examined, and when dust is likely to occur piles are sprayed with recycled water from the closed-loop drainage system.
Bryant said piles are sprayed as often as necessary.
“Obviously we’re in a wet climate. If we know we’re reaching a few dry days, spray towers will be activated,” she said, although she was unable to estimate how often that is.
“We’ve got natural dust suppression mechanisms in Prince Rupert,” Bryant said.
One source said the dust collection system on the dumpers, a piece of machinery that unloads coal from trains, was also removed creating more coal dust moving in the air.
Bryant said RTI did remove the dumper’s vacuum system a number of years ago because it was ineffective. She explained it was replaced with a water mist spray bar that “effectively keeps dust down”.
“[Coal] is sprayed as the dumpers handle it to kick the dust down. Then the coal goes out into stockpiles where it’s virtually impossible to stop the wind, which we seem to have a lot of in Prince Rupert, from moving some dust around,” Dorsey said.
On-site sources aren’t the only ones who have noticed excess coal dust coming from RTI.
In June 2011, the District of Port Edward spoke with RTI after hearing from 25 residents of Port Edward about a massive coal-dust cloud that obscured the sky and covered properties in a layer of coal dust.
Dorsey said RTI has a policy in place to assist the terminal’s nearest neighbour, Port Edward, in cases such as the June 2011 instance.
Dorsey said RTI will assist residents by having their homes power washed.
“Usually there’s sometime in the summer when it’s hot, dry and windy when dust will settle and we have people to clean that up. It’s not the norm,” Dorsey said.
If dust can reach as far away as Port Edward and cause issues for residents, the issue of employee safety comes to mind.
Bryant said employees wear masks on-site and RTI provides workers with yearly lung function testing. Bryant also noted there is a health and safety coordinator employed at RTI to ensure workers health is watched over.
But a person employed on the RTI site said it is not mandatory for workers to wear masks, and the mask provided by the company are not as high of a standard as they would expect to see.
Additionally, more sources say other dust-mitigation measures are not being followed including washing railcars to ensure they are dust-free for return trips. Also, photos obtained by The Northern View clearly show that RTI’s assurances that railcars coming into the terminal are loaded with flat profiles is not accurate, meaning coal has been loaded above the brim of railcars.
Bryant said RTI is doing what it can to reduce coal dust created at the terminal, as well as, protect the environment.
She said with RTI’s ongoing expansion, the terminal began installing a new dust monitoring system as of mid-May and is looking at additional ways to update its dust suppression systems as RTI expands into recently-developed areas.
“This includes additional spray towers, and when the time comes it also includes an additional water truck,” Bryant said.
One of the sources who came forward said it was time the public was made aware of what’s happening at the terminal. Several sources said while they did not want to see the terminal close down or lose the high-paying jobs RTI provides, they couldn’t stand idly by while the integrity of the marine environment was potentially being compromised.
With so much talk about the potential environmental impact of proposed projects such as LNG terminals and port expansion, allegations of harmful marine practices at one of Prince Rupert’s longstanding terminals raises the question of how closely promised environmental actions will be adhered to in the future.