Mixed News for PA Water and Land

The best hope for the cleanup of Pennsylvania's coal waste piles, like this one in St. Benedict, Pa., is removal and restoration by privately-owned CFB power plants, according to DEP spokesman, Tom Rathbun. (Photo by Dale Mann)

The best hope for the cleanup of Pennsylvania's coal waste piles, like this one in St. Benedict, Pa., is removal and restoration by privately-owned CFB power plants, according to DEP spokesman, Tom Rathbun. (Photo by Dale Mann)

By Dale Mann

(Note: This story is the second of a two-part feature. The first part focuses on the federal Abandoned Mine Land Fund’s tax on the coal industry which perpetuates the use of coal as a fuel source in states like Pennsylvania that have extreme AML coal waste conditions. The second part focuses on the ability of local watershed groups and CFB plants to shoulder the financial and environmental task of assisting the state in its restricted cleanup process.)

HARMAR TWP., Pa. – As the state attempts to stretch federal funding in order to reclaim and restore prioritized abandoned mines lands, many of those which are not a priority are left to private sector cleanup, said Tom Rathbun, spokesman for the PA DEP, in a phone interview.

Rathbun attributes most of the cleanup of low-priority waste piles to assistance from either circulating fluidized bed power plants or local watershed groups.

When The Pride confronted The Deer Creek Watershed Association, however, in regards to the coal waste pile which had been burning for two months along Deer Creek in Indianola, organization member, Pete Swallow, couldn’t initially recall the site during a phone interview.

“I’m not aware of a coal refuse fire within the watershed,” he said.

After further reflection and prompting, Swallow said that he seemed to recall a mention of it at the DCWA’s last meeting. According to the DCWA website, the Association meets at both the nearby Indiana Twp. Municipal Building and the West Deer Municipal Building, which is located six miles from the Indiana Twp. pile.

Although Rathbun credits watershed groups with making the biggest progress in the cleanup of harmful mine discharges which contaminate mine-side streams, Swallow said that the DCWA is not equipped to function effectively.

“This is a tiny little organization,” he said, adding that the entire staff is comprised of volunteers. “In addition to that, we have to pay dues, and that’s how we survive.”

Jon Meade of the Pennsylvania Organization of Watersheds and Rivers said in an email to The Pride that many of the watersheds within his trade organization are made up of volunteers.

When asked about funding, Swallow told The Pride that while the DCWA does receive certain grants for specific projects, they receive nothing on a regular basis.

“The Watershed is basically powerless,” Swallow admitted.

“It would take an enormous amount of money to fully resolve the mine impacts in this watershed, and it’s not a realistic concern,” he added.

According to the Pennsylvania Organization of Watersheds and Rivers’ website, there are 22 forms of funding available to more than 400 Pennsylvania watershed groups.

“Well, I think the group as a whole struggles with what our function is,” Swallow said.

“Some of what the watershed has tried to do in the last couple of years is understand a little bit more about how historical mining operations have affected what we see as the watershed today,” he added.

The Deer Creek watershed encompasses 50 miles of mixed territory that includes woodland, agricultural and suburban development, Swallow said. The basin of the watershed discharges from Deer Creek into the Allegheny River in Harmarville.

According to the website for the environmental group, the National Resource Defense Council, a major area of concern for the watersheds are the many waste piles that are often left unattended and exposed. This lack of containment, the site says, increases the susceptibility of the piles to fires and seepage into the soil and water.

Acid mine drainage, which is the oxidation of the toxins found in mine refuse piles, continues to be just one of the persistent problems pertaining to coal refuse, according to the United States Geological Survey’s website.

“Waste coal piles are stream killers,” Rathbun said.

He elaborated, stating that the high acidity of the sulfur in the waste prevents the growth of vegetation within the pile. The lack of vegetation, then, enables water to flow directly through the waste piles, attracting all of the pile’s inner contaminants as it passes through. The contaminated water then carries the harmful toxins into the nearby streams, he said.

In March, Rick Balog of the Office of Surface Mining and Reclamation told The Pride that while the coal waste which was smoldering along Deer Creek would be excavated and extinguished, it would not be removed.

More recently, Rathbun was able to expound on Balog’s statement.

Rathbun explained that despite federal provisions in the form of the Abandoned Mine Land Fund, Pennsylvania doesn’t have the sufficient revenue to clean up the coal waste piles at the more structurally-sound abandoned mines.

“We are going to get $29M this year, but that money is for Priority One and Priority Two sites … dangerous holes, unmarked openings and things like that,” he said.

Although Rathbun agrees that waste coal is a danger to the environment, he admits that because mine priority is determined by the pre-environmental age Abandoned Mine Land Information System, all of the priority sites are those which pose the greatest structural rather than health hazards.

As a result of the AMLIS/AML Fund financial constraint, Rathbun says the state is therefore forced to look to other outlets as sources of funding.


Despite its harmful effects, coal refuse is considered a biomass, which is classified as a nonhazardous secondary material fuel, according to the Environmental Reporter. As such, coal refuse is therefore considered a renewable energy source as outlined in the EPA’s Resource Conservation Recovery Act.

In a March 3 press release, the PA DEP stated that Pennsylvania houses 14 of the nation’s 18 CFB power plants.

Pennsylvania’s CFB plants utilize the carbon remnants of coal refuse piles to create as much as 2 percent of the state’s overall electricity supply.

“The power companies are really the ones who are cleaning up these piles,” Rathbun stated.

Rathbun said that because the independently-owned CFB plants will be incurring the entire cost of cleanup, the DEP tries to facilitate the plants by issuing the strip mining permits as simply and quickly as possible.

Pennsylvania issued mining permits which resulted in the removal of nearly a half-million tons of coal refuse in Southwestern Pennsylvania in 2003 for use in the clean coal plants, according to the Pa DEP.

“Here’s the situation,” said Jeff McNelly, Executive Director of the Anthracite Region Independent Power Producers Association, “abandoned mine lands and abandoned mine drainage is the number two source of all pollution in Pennsylvania. What are you going to do about it?”

ARIPPA is a trade organization which represents 13 of the CFB plants in Pennsylvania.

Using the CFB technology that was developed in the 1980’s, the facilities represented by ARIPPA rely on the small amount of carbon that remains in the refuse as the primary component of their power production, McNelly said.

He added that CFB plants produce the lowest of all emissions found in electric-generating plants.

CFB plant owners either remove the coal waste from AMLs or buy the land outright in order to remove it, McNelly said.

Once an agreement had been reached and the refuse has been utilized, McNelly said that the remnants are then returned to the site. Upon its return to the site, the refuse is an ash form, void of the harmful carbon which is filtered out in the CFB process.

McNelly said that the site is then restored with the natural vegetation, grass and trees that were there prior to the refuse.

In a February press release, the NRDC focused its attention on the coal ash returned back to the site by power producers.

In it, the NRDC provided a quote from Ben Dunham of Earthjustice, who supported legislation that would, “protect the public and the environment from the toxins in coal ash.”

Aside from Dunham’s claim, no information on the NRDC’s website could be located to support their own view on coal ash. In a general reference from a report titled The Case of the Hatfield’s Ferry Landfill, the NRDC did say that coal refuse was, “another form of disposal that carries its own pollution risks.”

ARIPPA’s McNelly insists that the concentrations of coal ash which are returned to the sites do not exceed EPA regulations.

“The simple fact of the matter is that each and every time their issues come up, when you look at hard cold facts and scientific data versus reactionary suppositions, they have always been losing out,” McNelly said.

Because the plants remove the harmful carbon from the refuse and add only limestone during the process, McNelly contends that only those natural materials which were originally found in the land to begin with are being returned.

In a January press release, the NRDC responded to the announcement by the EPA, issued earlier that same week, which stated that electric utilities would now be required to provide information about the structural integrity of the units in which their coal refuse is stored.

Regulating the storage of coal refuse would prevent such disasters as that which occurred last year in Kingston, Tennessee, which covered 300 acres of land, damaging homes and property and filling-in large sections of rivers and killing fish, the EPA stated.

Coal refuse is defined as a low BTU-value waste material, consisting of primarily rock with some remaining carbon which was unable to be separated from the rock, that is left over from the coal mining process, according to ARIPPA’s website.

While ARIPPA contends that all of the returned ash is within EPA guidelines, McNelly admits that there is a down side. “The tradeoff is that you have a small emissions situation and a small ash situation,” he said.

“They have to verify what they have,” Rathbun said, backing-up McNelly’s claim that the returned ash does not exceed EPA standards. Rathbun stated that a trail of paperwork from the generator and receiver can be traced to the returned ash as verification of the claim.

“There are 2 specific requirements when you’re placing coal ash,” he said, “The generator of the ash has to prove that it meets DEP and EPA standards, and the receiver has to prove that their site meets EPA and DEP standards and that it’s placed properly.”

Because of the consistent technology of the CFB process, Rathbun says that his office has no concern that the content of the ash would change within a narrow timeframe.

“If they were to change their system, change a source, change one of their processes or something, then they would want to go through the process of getting approval for their coal ash,” he added.

Aside from any major process changes, Rathbun said that the DEP is provided with yearly updates from the power plants regarding information on both the waste that’s been used and the ash specifically drawn from that waste.

The CFB plants in Pennsylvania burn 7.5 million tons of coal refuse per year, according to the PA DEP.

“This is one of the few things in our society,” said McNelly, “that is truly a win-win-win. You’ve got a win for the consumer, a win for the people and subcontractors who are employed, and you’ve got a win for the national defense of our country in the format of meeting electricity demands.”

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