City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.



I swear I can still taste the coal dust in my mouth, nine hours later. Marco had noticed the soot in the snow first. Looking down from our vantage point on the 14th floor of our tower in Ruoholahti, we get a good view of the Finnish-registered coail carrier, the Alppila, unloading its cargo into the hoppers on the dockside of Kellosaari.

The hoppers direct the coal down to a tunnel, which then stretches some 700m to the west of Ruoholahti. The coal is then subsumed into the Salmisaari power station, a 1953 job owned by Helsinki Energia. Even though the distributed system of energy generation and district heating is profoundly smart for any modern city, and particularly a city with the heating/cooling loads and geography of Helsinki (see this earlier descent into the depths), I hope I don’t need to point out the (now inexcusable) problems with coal-powered generation.

Despite growing up in the north of England, it’s a strange feeling to see a large chimney billowing smoke above a neighbourhood. You just don’t see that in those post-industrial cities anymore, and haven’t done for decades. The air from Ruoholahti chimney may not be as dirty as it once was, although you’d hardly want a toke on it, but the days of recent persistent snow suddenly made legible this form of energy. (You may know this chimney from the Nuage Vert installation.)

Leaving aside the carbon footprint of these old stations, what struck Marco and I was its more immediately apparent footprint, suddenly highlighted by the combination of snow-covered land and frozen sea with bright sun, even from a kilometre away. The Alppila was clearly sitting in a large and growing halo of black coal dust, a smudge on the pristine white seascape. 

I went for a walk with my camera. Approaching from the north, and still several hundred metres away from the dock, I could immediately see that the snow downwind of the Alppila was covered with a thin film of coal dust. This is an entirely unnatural landscape at the best of times — Ruoholahti is essentially 1910 landfill joining three or four islands — and people need energy, but still.



Along the banks of the canal to my left, I see miniature landscapes of snowy striations drawn by the wind whipping up from the bay.




There’s something awful and beautiful about these patterns, and particularly the grainy grey sweeps of soot falling across the sea frozen solid around the ship.




The white of the newer snow on the Ruoholahti canal easily offsets the black ridges on its banks. Still well downwind of the ship, the air suddenly starts tasting of coal.




I plunge my hand into the deep snow to describe the difference. There’s a crust of black particulate covering everything. Closer, on the now-filthy bridge adjacent to the Alppila, I step in up to my knees to take a photo of the sea – each footstep plunges deep into pure white, clearly marking how dirty the bridge is afterwards.




The ice around the ship is bright white on one side and deep grey on the other, the wind curling the black dust around the lee side of the ship, a cruel sketch of what at first looks like a shadow, but is simply a thick coat of coal dust on snow and ice.



Tracking the Alppila on, it looks like it’s come in from Vyotsk, Russia. Vyotsk was a minor strategic node in the brutal battles between Finland and Russia during World War II, but is now a small town with a major strategic port shifting oil and coal to the west, with over 2 billion tonnes of the latter exported last year. But the coal carrier is not going to see Russia anytime today, sitting gripped by thick ice generated by the last few days of -20C temperatures. It’s a brutish looking thing, described in the evocative language of shipping as “Lloyd’s Register +100 A1 Bulk Carrier, Ice Class 1 A Super”, but the entire Baltic is sold as far as the eye can see.

There’s no-one visible on-board the ship. I stand on the tram bridge perpendicular to the ship, along with a few others 20 metres away towards the boldly cantilevered F-Secure building, watching what looks like an automated operation, ship as robot. Smoke billows from the ship announcing another dumper of coal swinging gracefully through the cold air.

The Alppila’s black cranes continue to empty coal into the hoppers and down into the ground, soft clouds of soot drifting over the residential neighbourhood downwind.

Coal landing at Salmisaari [Flickr]


2 responses to “Journal: Alppila at Salmisaari, black soots in Ruoholahti”

  1. Dan Hill Avatar

    The plot thickens. A local whose studio is in the Cable Factory tells me more. Apparently the extremely cold weather in the east had meant that the coal dust was, well, dustier than usual, hence a lot of the ‘spread’. An explanation, not an excuse, of course.
    Same local’s old studio was positioned on top of one of the chutes in the tunnel, apparently. When it is extremely cold, they consider an option of not shifting the coal in winter, and just loading during summer – this would mean the chutes in the tunnel would fill with coal. This is a problem, he said, as the coal had been known to spontaneously combust in the tunnel …


  2. swag Avatar



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