Is coal dust really a problem in downtown Mobile?
We hired McCrone Associates, a laboratory in Illinois, to test dust samples taken across downtown. Explore FOX10 News interactive map of places we sampled, with resultsSamples were taken from five locations: DeTonti Square, the Convention Center, the LoDa Entertainment District near Cathedral Square, South Dearborn Street in the Church Street neighborhood, and a home a block away from Council Traditional Elementary School.
McCrone gave FOX10 News strict instructions for collecting the dust samples, noting if possible, it's best to collect the samples as loose dust samples, which means we would brush or scrape the dust from the side of the building into a small container.
However, McCrone researchers told FOX10 News if the dust is stuck to the siding, a wipe sample would be sufficient. With a wipe sample, FOX10 News was instructed to use a white fabric, and if necessary, the lab told us to moisten the fabric with water to best pick up the sample off of the surface we wished to test.
Following those instructions, we went to work.
FOX10 News took wipe samples from South Dearborn Street in the historic Church Street District, where Loehr lives, and from Bohnenstiehl's home in DeTonti Square.
Then, FOX10 News was able to take loose dust samples from the Convention Center, the LoDa Entertainment District, and the home near Council School.
We taped them shut, and shipped them off, and McCrone Associates' Senior Research Microscopist, Scott Stoeffler, studied them under a microscope.
"All the samples were collected and packaged really nicely," said Stoeffler, "and we looked at each one of them microscopically to identify the different components.”
Downtown coal dust study results revealed
“All the samples had coal dust of different amounts,” said Stoeffler.
The sample from the Convention Center consisted of up to five percent coal dust, and the sample from the entertainment district was made up of up to 10 percent coal dust.
The sample at DeTonti Square had up to 20 percent coal dust, the same as the sample from South Dearborn Street.
The sample taken from a home a block away from Council Elementary School, which is a magnet school for children across the city, contained approximately 30 percent coal dust.
"These were interesting samples, normally I don't see quite this much coal dust in an outdoor sample," said Stoeffler.
To view an interactive map with the full results for each sampling location downtown in relation to where the two coal terminals are located, click here.
Doctor: Coal dust can be a deadly toxin
Dr. Alan Lockwood works with the Physicians for Social Responsibility, a nationwide organization that addresses health concerns in communities. He even wrote a book about the dangers of prolonged exposure to coal dust, entitled "The Silent Epidemic: Coal and the Hidden Threat to Health."
"You can link coal exposures to all four of the leading causes of death in the United States: heart disease, cancer, respiratory diseases, and stroke," said Dr. Lockwood.
Dr. Lockwood said children are most at risk, because their lungs are still developing, and they take in more air per unit per weight than adults do.
"They're sensitive to toxins, and exposure to toxins during development," said Lockwood.
Lockwood also said that people with preexisting respiratory illnesses are also more at risk to coal dust exposure. He explained coal dust's chemical and physical composition make it especially threatening to human health.
"Coal contains metals like mercury, cadmium, nickel, that are all toxic, to which people have allergies. It contains volatile organic compounds, and those are potentially carcinogenic," he said. "Finally, when the coal is ground up into fine particles, the particles themselves injure health, regardless of what their composition is."
Residents react to coal dust study results: “The number is shocking”
Some residents are worried about those risks, including Loehr, who has lived at his home on South Dearborn Street where FOX10 News sampled for the study.
Loehr was shocked when FOX10 News told him what McCrone Associates found.
"I knew there would be some percentage, but I didn't think it would be that high," said Loehr.
When FOX10 News told him the sample near Council School was approximately 30 percent coal dust, Loehr was equally as stunned.
"That is just awful," he said. "Those are our kids. It's very disturbing."
FOX10 News also gave Bohnenstiehl the results from the sample taken at her home in DeTonti Square.
"Wow," she said. "I knew there had to have been some there, and the number is shocking."
ADEM: “We’ve been aware that you can find coal on surfaces nearby”
Regardless of the presence of coal dust downtown, the two coal terminals operating in the city are considered to be in compliance according to the Alabama Department of Environmental Management, or ADEM.
ADEM officials said that's because ADEM requires facilities to only minimize coal dust emissions, not completely prevent them.
"We've been aware that you can find coal on surfaces nearby," said Ronald Gore, Air Division Chief of ADEM. "As a result of that, probably 10 years ago, ADEM put out air quality monitors in the downtown area, and we ran them for at least a year if not more, and found that the types of particles that were being emitted and the amount of particles being emitted didn't violate any state or federal air quality standards. So we removed the monitor."
But, he said the downtown air hasn't been monitored since.
"Now there are air quality monitors in mobile, just not that near to downtown. They don't measure any problem with the air quality standards either. There's one in Chickasaw, one in Fairhope, and one south of town,” said Gore.
Even though the FOX10 News study found coal dust present across downtown, Gore speculates there still isn't a health concern with coal dust in the area.
"I don't know that anything has changed, as far as what was going on 10 years ago," said Gore.
Gore said if there is a need to place more stringent regulations on coal facilities state-wide, ADEM would have the power to do so.
Alabama State Port Authority: “There’s no evidence of any health issues”
Jimmy Lyons, CEO of the Alabama State Port Authority, had this to say about public health effects.
"There's no evidence at all of any health issues related to this," said Lyons. "We currently have 173 employees that work there, most of our employees will work 30 to 40 years and retire, and we find no claims for respiratory illnesses from employees that work there."
Lyons reviewed our study. FOX10 News asked him about the percentage of coal dust found in the sample taken near Council Elementary, which is located only about a mile from the McDuffie Terminal.
"Well I don't think they're (the children at Council) breathing a lot of coal dust," said Lyons.
FOX10 News then asked Lyons about his level of concern for those children, when doctors say that children are most vulnerable to coal dust exposure.
He responded, "I'm going to back to what I said, our goal is to have zero emissions whatsoever, and we're going to get as close to that as we can."
City of Mobile: Further protective measures “too cost prohibitive”
FOX10 News also showed Mobile's attorney, Doug Anderson, our study results.
He said the study doesn't go far enough to convince him that there are any pollution problems downtown.
"We don't know how much coal dust is out there. We know, based on this report, there's an indication, there's a showing that there is some coal dust. Does it reach a level that is dangerous? I have no idea. Is it something the city should be concerned about, absolutely, and that's why we have the regulations we do," said Anderson.
Anderson said current city zoning regulations label coal dust a hazardous material. So, FOX10 News wanted to know, if the city defines coal dust as a hazardous material, could it be a problem if there are hazardous materials covering people's homes?
"It depends on the amount," Anderson responded.
However, Anderson said the city does have the legal authority to label coal dust a "nuisance," and could draft up an ordinance that would force coal terminals to prevent their nuisance from spreading to other properties.
Some states have taken that action. In southern California, coal terminals there are required to store coal dust piles in enclosed buildings to prevent it from blowing away into nearby communities.
The South Coast Air Quality Management District, which governs air pollution standards in multiple counties in southern California, issued a rule in 2008 that requires all coal dust piles to be stored in an enclosed structure to prevent coal dust from blowing away, because the agency has labeled coal dust a public nuisance.
FOX10 News asked Anderson if imposing an enclosed structure ordinance for coal terminals should be under consideration in Mobile.
"No," he said. "One, it's not needed, two, I think it's too cost prohibitive."
Lyons agrees. He said the Port Authority wouldn't have the money to build an enclosed structure over its coal piles.
Yet, he feels confident his facility is a good neighbor to the residents of downtown Mobile.
FOX10 News asked Lyons if his taxpayer-funded organization would be willing to help the taxpayers living in downtown get the coal dust, which is labeled a hazardous material, off of their homes and out of their communities.
"No," said Lyons. "I disagree that it's a hazardous material."
FOX10 News then asked him if he still felt that way, knowing that coal dust is known to be carcinogenic.
Lyons questioned that, asking, "Coal dust is known to be carcinogenic?"
FOX10 News explained what Dr. Lockwood said about the health effects of prolonged exposure to coal dust, but Lyons emphasized that because no workers have filed health claims against the McDuffie facility, he does not feel the community is at risk.
"We haven't seen it in our workers, you know if anybody is going to have a problem, it's going to be the workers there," said Lyons.
Residents calling for regulation change
Back on South Dearborn, Loehr believes the coal terminals and the city should step up.
He said no cost is too high to protect the some 600 children city-wide who attend Council Magnet School, and the all of the children who live and play in the downtown community.
"That's the future of this city and the country, the children, and to put them in that kind of box of contaminants, is wrong," said Loehr.
Bohnenstiehl agrees. She wants her state and local representatives to make coal terminal regulation changes to protect her community.
"No longer, no longer. Especially now that we have the results, and we have proof that this is what is affecting our neighborhoods, then yes, it definitely needs to be addressed," said Bohnenstiehl.
FOX10 News also sent a copy of our study to Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson's office, and asked for an interview a number of times, but so far, the Mayor has not been made available for to speak about the issue.
FOX10 News also reached out to the other coal terminal in town, Cooper Marine and Timberlands.
A spokesperson for the facility only said, “No comment.”
In the meantime, we have an interactive map posted for you, so you can see exactly where we sampled in relation to the two coal facilities operating in Mobile.
There, you can click on a location to see its sample results. You can also click on the either coal terminal location to learn more about each facility.
FOX10 News will continue to stay on top of this issue, and keep you informed as any changes are made.
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