Still Burning is a network working against the global hard coal infrastructure.

6 Shipping injustice – how the coal travels

by | 30 Mar, 2021 | Transport and Usage

Once it leaves the mine – on conveyor belts or trucks – the coal is usually transported to the nearest harbour. Many mines have their own railway lines, or even ports and shipping terminals, not only for exporting coal, but also to transport supplies and machinery to the mine. In Colombia, for instance, trains connecting the Cerrejón mine to the port 150km away operate 24 hours a day. 

The mining region in El Cesar, Colombia, is also connected to the sea by an approximately 200km railway line. Every 15 minutes, day and night, a 120 wagon train passes, cutting through several villages on the way, very close to people’s houses and with minimal safety measures. Over the past years many accidents have happened, and dozens of people have died as a result. People that live close by are affected in their sleep, their houses are damaged by the vibrations caused from the massive cargo on the trains, and because the trains are not covered, people’s health is affected by the coal dust.

In Russia, coal export may require long-distance rail transport, often for many days, before the coal arrives in harbours where large excavators load it onto enormous ships bound for China, India, or Europe. 

Coal loading also generates coal dust that harms local communities and results in loading accidents, spilling coal into the sea. 

The largest sea vessels, Capesize ships, are up to 300m long, have storage spaces below sea level whose depth is similar to that of six-story buildings, and can carry up to 200,000 tonnes of coal. These ships often run under the flags of tax havens and are staffed by workers from the Philippines or China, who are working under extremely exploitative and dangerous conditions.

Coal imports into the EU still make up about 10 percent of the global seaborne market. In 2018, sea imports totalled almost 137 million tonnes. Over two-thirds of imports are thermal coal, used mainly in power stations; coking coal used by steel mills comprises the remainder. After days, and often weeks, at sea, the coal arrives in one of Europe’s major coal harbours. Coal from Colombia, South Africa, and the US primarily lands at Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and Antwerp (ARA) harbours, where it is frequently loaded onto smaller vessels and transported to other European countries. Russian coal often arrives in the Baltic Sea ports of Rostock, Hamburg, Kiel, Flensburg, and Stettin.

The largest coal ports of Europe are located in the Netherlands – in Rotterdam and Amsterdam – but the majority of this coal is destined for Germany. In fact, Germany continues to import more hard coal than any other European country, followed by Poland, Spain, and Italy. While the UK has recently seen a significant decrease in imports, due to increases in wind energy, conversion to biofuels, and EU emission restrictions, Poland’s imports have increased, because its domestic coal industry cannot compete with cheap Russian imports.

Amsterdam-Rotterdam-Antwerp (ARA) ports

Dutch seaports handle about a third of Europe’s incoming coal. The Rotterdam harbour is the largest coal port in Europe, importing more than 22 million tonnes of coal a year, followed by Amsterdam (15 million tonnes) and Hamburg. Combustion of the coal that is imported into the Netherlands would result in the emission of approximately 92 million tonnes of CO2, equivalent to 47 percent of the emissions of the Netherlands. However, because most of this coal is shipped through the Netherlands, these emissions are not considered to be part of the Dutch CO2 footprint. The big ARA ports have coal terminals in which coal is handled and temporarily stored, before being transferred onto smaller vessels that can navigate the inland canals and rivers across Europe. Inside these large coal terminals, coal gets screened, blended, and washed; this is one of the reasons why the coal supply chains lack transparency. When coal is loaded onto smaller boats and transported to other countries, it is not always traceable to its actual state of origin, as it has been blended with other coal. In other words, coal imported into Europe often appears to be coal ‘mined in Europe’, and it therefore looks like Europe extracts more coal than it actually does.

From colonial times, the coal trade has played (and continues to play) a very important role for the development of ports. In Nigeria, for instance, the building of railway and port infrastructure was directly linked to coal exports, and coal export was a driver for further British colonisation, slave labour, and infrastructure development. Ports are thus crucial parts of coal infrastructure – without them, the international coal trade would not be possible. Having arrived in the ARA harbours, 80 percent of all coal is then further transported through rivers and canals, especially the Rhine river. As the climate is changing, water levels on the Rhine river are increasingly unpredictable, making the transport route difficult to travel for barges heading to coal-fired plants in Germany. The Port of Duisburg on the mouth of the Ruhr and Rhine rivers is said to be the biggest inland harbour of Europe, if not the world. It handles between five and ten million tonnes of coal a year.

To reduce transport costs, many power plants are located along the coast, with their own port facilities or in close proximity to sea routes, rivers, or canals. The port of Rotterdam, for instance, is home to two massive coal-fired power plants (1,800 MW combined); the Eemshaven port has the largest Dutch power station nearby, the ‘Eemshavencentrale’ in Groningen, operated by RWE; the German port of Bremen has two power stations, and Hamburg has three. Some ports are exclusively for coal that is delivered to adjacent power stations, such as Plomin in Croatia and Amagervaerket in Denmark. From port sites, coal is further transported by rail to inland power stations, steelworks, cement facilities, and other industries.

About 30 percent of the coal that arrives at the ARA harbours is transported to coal-fired power plants and the steel industry in the Netherlands, the rest is shipped to Germany, and small amounts to France and Belgium. Increasingly, coal is piled up in major ports, as demand for coal has been decreasing. In the UK, for instance, more coal is currently piled up in coal harbours, waiting to be transported to power stations, than can be burnt before 2024, when the government intends to phase out coal for electricity generation.

Disrupting the coal supply chain

The Dutch harbours – and the wider coal infrastructure – have repeatedly been targeted by climate justice activists with actions under the banners of GroenFront! (EarthFirst!), Wij Stoppen Steenkool (We stop hard coal), and Code Rood (Code Red).

These include small group and mass actions, banner drops, occupations, blockades, and creative engagement with coal infrastructure – from the delivery of coal to corporate offices, the disruption of energy companies’ headquarters, and occupations and blockades of power stations, conveyor belts, coal railways, and harbours. 

In 2016 – exactly one year after the victory of the Urgenda climate case, which took the Dutch government to court over insufficient action against climate crisis – Wij Stoppen Steenkool activists took actions against coal power stations in Eemshaven, Geertruidenberg, and de Maasvlakte, as well as the Amsterdam coal port simultaneously. In 2017, over 300 people shut down the Coal Transport Bulk Terminal Amsterdam, followed by a small group action blockading a conveyor belt inside Rotterdam port in 2019. And in the same year, the deCOALonise days of action targeted harbours, canals, and various other bits of coal infrastructure across Germany.

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