SANTA MARTA, Colombia — This historic port city was once touted by the Colombian government as the next Acapulco, with its scenic bay, white sand beaches, colonial history and the eco-tourism potential of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, home to one of the largest and oldest pre-Columbian settlements in the Americas.
Then came the coal dust.
"It covers the plants, the furniture, enters the reception area and even the rooms," said Leonor Gomez Gonzalez, owner of the beachfront Park Hotel. "It's a permanent condition. Nothing stays clean."
Officials say tourism is down significantly and that only one new hotel has been built in three years -- since coal shipments began to increase dramatically.
Riding high on the global commodities boom, Colombia is reaping an enormous windfall from export of its high-quality coal, and millions of tons of it are being shipped annually from this sweltering, desert-like coastal area to the far corners of the Earth.
But in Santa Marta, officials and residents complain that the only dividend they're getting is an unwanted one: the fine layer of coal dust spread over much of the town each morning after La Loca, or the Crazy One, blows. That's what locals call the gusts that scatter the black dust through much of the city -- from the poor barrio of San Martin to the wealthy beach enclave of Bella Vista -- hurting tourism, fishing and possibly the health of residents.
The mining industry now overshadows tourism here in Colombia's first city, founded in 1525. Santa Marta's deep-water port has made it a leading embarkation point for coal mined in La Guajira and Cesar states, and the dust and residue from thousands of loads of coal passing through or near here daily on trucks and trains have smudged the city's image and cooled visitors' ardor.
At the same time, construction in the rest of Colombia is booming, as is tourism in selected areas.
Mayor Jose Francisco Zuniga said in an interview last month that the growing presence of coal had robbed Santa Marta of jobs and economic growth.
Contamination of Santa Marta Bay by coal dust and by at least two major spills from coal-laden barges since 2001 has severely damaged the marine ecosystem and reduced the once- rich fishing grounds, experts say.
"Right there, that's hunger," fisherman Humberto Grande, 20, said as he contemplated the measly load of sardines that he and his nine companions had harvested from the sea after 12 hours of backbreaking work setting and then hauling in their quarter-mile-long net. The catch was worth about $2 each to them.
"It's all contaminated here," Grande said.
Residents worry that the coal dust, well known for causing severe pulmonary problems such as black lung disease and silicosis in miners, could be a public health time bomb.
"Many children have come down with respiratory and skin problems," said Hector Ortiz, community leader of the San Martin barrio. "It's because of the coal dust that the air current brings here."
Despite what seems to be widespread unhappiness about the coal among Santa Marta's citizens, public opposition appears relatively muted. That reticence was attributed variously to indifference, exasperation and fear.
"Expressing yourself in this town can cost you your life," community activist Ana Elisa Angulo said.
Angulo was referring to the killing in 2004 of local parks director Marta Castillo, 40, after she denounced the use of nearby Tayrona National Park by drug traffickers.
Three labor leaders at the Drummond Co. coal mine in La Loma, 120 miles south of here, were killed by suspected paramilitary troops after campaigning for better work conditions. Drummond, based in Birmingham, Ala., faces a U.S. civil suit in the matter. The company has denied any involvement in the killings.
"In the end, the last word around here goes to the one with the money," hotel owner Gomez Gonzalez said.
Four mining companies use Santa Marta and its environs as a storage depot and offloading point for coal. But the facility maintained by Carbosan in the Santa Marta port, just a few hundred yards from the densely populated city center, is the main source of the dust -- and of concern.
There, the locally owned mining company maintains a four-story-tall open stockpile of coal for direct loading onto ships.
Surrounding buildings, especially the adjacent Institute of Marine and Coastal Research "Jose Benito Vives de Andreis," are covered with coal dust after a day of La Loca.
"After one weekend of strong winds last year, we swept up half a ton of coal from our walkways and parking lot," said Jesus Garay, an official at the research station. "As years go by, I think we will begin to see long-term health impacts in our employees."
Garay said the institute's administrators were trying to move.
Stretches of the city's major traffic artery, Railroad Avenue, have taken on the grimy look of a truck stop as small businesses have sprung up to clean, maintain and park trucks after they have dumped their loads at the port.