Mountain of Coal Waits Along Providence Waterfront

The coal pile currently at Waterson Terminal Services at the Port of Providence is about 70 feet high and can be seen from the East Bay Bike Path in East Providence or from the India Point Park Bridge in Fox Point. (Kevin Proft/ecoRI News)

The coal pile currently at Waterson Terminal Services at the Port of Providence is about 70 feet high and can be seen from the East Bay Bike Path in East Providence or from the India Point Park Bridge in Fox Point. (Kevin Proft/ecoRI News)

Waterson Terminal stores imported coal for New England power plants

By KEVIN PROFT/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — In the mile between the wind turbines at the Field’s Point Wastewater Treatment Facility and the headquarters of Save The Bay sits a massive pile of coal. Since 2001, Waterson Terminal Services at the Port of Providence has imported millions of tons of coal from across the globe for use in New England’s power plants.

According to Chris Waterson, general manager at Waterson Terminal, the growth of his company was built on coal imports. “If you look at projections for coal imports from 2008, the line was headed straight up,” he said. That year, Waterson Terminal imported more than a million tons of coal from countries such as Colombia and Indonesia.

Much of the demand for Waterson’s coal is driven by Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards designed to limit the level of pollutants emitted from power plants. While domestic coal from West Virginia is cheaper than Waterson’s imported coal, it burns dirtier. Waterson’s imported coal burns more cleanly, allowing New England power plants to remain operational without investing in expensive pollution-scrubbing technology, the general manager said.

After 2008 the market changed, Waterson blamed the economic downturn and the hydraulic fracturing — fracking for short — of natural gas for the shift. Consumers began conserving energy, and coal-fired power plants transitioned into backup energy sources — only burning coal when electricity demands couldn’t be met by cheaper-to-fuel natural gas plants.

Waterson Terminal’s coal imports plummeted some 90 percent from 2008 levels, to 100,000 tons in 2013. Waterson estimates a rise in volume to between 300,000 and 400,000 tons this year, but doesn’t believe volumes will ever return to 2008 levels.

“We cannot completely rely on coal the way we used to,” Waterson said. His operation has had to diversify and find new business to fill the space left by lower coal volumes. He said coal, scrap metal and salt now make up most of his business, each contributing about equally.

Local impacts

Despite declining coal imports at Waterson Terminal, the small mountain of coal piled there is impressive. The clearest view of the piles is from across Narragansett Bay on the northern section of the East Bay Bike Path. The jet-black piles, some reaching heights of 70 feet, are just south of the spinning wind turbines at Field’s Point.

This summer, the pile grew especially large when a Waterson Terminal power-plant customer overestimated demand. “They gambled, and they lost,” Waterson said, referring to 2014’s cool summer. Without many hot days, people didn’t use their air conditioners often, which meant backup power from coal plants wasn’t needed, he said. After the customer’s surplus coal filled the power plant’s onsite storage space, the rest was sent to Waterson Terminal, leaving the port with a massive pile of the coal that is still there.

The coal at Waterson Terminal is in nugget form and considerably dusty. When it is loaded, unloaded or moved, coal dust flies into the air and settles in the bay. Tom Kutcher, baykeeper for Save The Bay, spends a good deal of time piloting a boat near the port. On occasion, Kutcher said he has noticed a film of dust in the water around the port. Sometimes, airborne dust gets in his eyes when he is piloting the boat.

“I was barely able to keep my eyes open on the bay,” he said.

Pollution plans

Stormwater runoff is another issue. In order to keep dust down at the facility, Waterson Terminal uses two 3,000-gallon water trucks to wet the roads, six towers with irrigation guns to spray the piles and 12 misters to catch airborne dust. The operation can use tens of thousands of gallons of water a day. Rain also causes runoff. Before the runoff at the terminal can reenter the bay, regulation requires that it be filtered to reduce pollutants and particulates.

According to Waterson, the company has always had a Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management-approved stormwater management plan. The terminal’s plan consists mostly of sediment booms placed at the edge of the port. Runoff flows toward the bay and is filtered by the booms before it enters the bay, Waterson said.

About six months ago, Waterson Terminal submitted an application to secure an industrial stormwater permit from DEM to bring the facility into compliance with current regulations. Eric Beck of DEM’s Office of Water Resources, who is in charge of permitting, said DEM and Waterson Terminal are at the beginning of the process. Beck and his team visited the port to better understand the operation, then submitted a request for more information.

“Waterson was very willing to host us,” Beck said. “I believe we are on the same page.”

Waterson Terminal applied for the stormwater permit to avoid losing future customers as a result of being out of compliance. “They want to be prepared,” Beck said. “I applaud them for that.”

According to Beck, the old infrastructure at Waterson Terminal is a problem. New facilities take into account a whole list of items that older facilities such as  Waterson’s didn’t when they were built, he said. Existing facilities take time to upgrade to the standards expected today, Beck said.

Once Waterson Terminal is determined to be in compliance and a permit is issued, benchmark sampling will be completed, and follow-up tests will be conducted semi-annually by DEM through the life of the permit.

“We don’t want any particulates discharged into the bay,” Beck said. “The bottom line is minimize the exposure, clean up after yourself, and make sure your drainage system works.”

Both Kutcher, of Save The Bay, and Waterson agree that coal, in its unburned state, is relatively harmless to the aquatic environment; it’s a heavy-metal risk only after it has been burned. Regardless, any foreign particles entering the bay should be minimized, Kutcher said.

Waterson Terminal also has conducted air-quality tests that conclude that, even within confined areas of a vessel’s cargo hold, exposure to coal dust at the port is well below the permissible exposure level defined by OSHA. Employees have the option to wear standard, disposable dust masks, but it’s not necessary, according to the facility’s general manager.

Waterson said he doesn’t see his operation as being complicit in climate change. As long as coal plants persist in New England, they will need to be supplied with coal, and where the coal is stored before it is burned is beside the point, he said.

Waterson Terminal receives occasional calls and e-mails from people concerned about the coal piles but, for the most part, the public has not protested the terminal, according to its general manager. He also noted that Waterson Terminal has maintained a good relationship with its environmentally minded neighbor, Save The Bay.

Kutcher, for his part, said Waterson Terminal has been a relatively cooperative neighbor. “They want to be in compliance,” he said.