The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Local News

October 27, 2012

Cleanup in peril: New standards threaten waste coal operations

EBENSBURG — Washington Township supervisor Ray Guzic stands near the Lilly War Memorial field and remembers the huge bony pile that for decades towered over the community.

Today that site is cleared and ready for recreational use, a huge improvement that is turning this central Mainline community around.

But if the federal Environmental Protection Agency rejects a plea from a number of legislators, some of the plants burning the waste coal to produce energy may be out of business within a few years.

The bony piles will continue to tower over towns such as Nanty Glo and Windber, and a second bony pile in Washington Township, targeted for cleanup, may continue to sit idle.

“It was a great thing for this community,” Guzic said of the bony pile removed by the Colver Power Project. “(EPA officials) need to come and look at what this is like now.”

At issue are EPA’s new mercury and air toxics standards, which tighten acceptable air emissions for coal burning power plants and raise the bar on allowable emissions from all types of coal burning plants.

Pennsylvania has 14 waste-to-energy plants, including three in Cambria County: Colver Power and Cambria Co-Gen, both owned by Inter-Power/AhlCon Partners LP of Sewickley, and Ebensburg Power Co. of Revloc, owned by Babcock & Wilcox of Barberton, Ohio.

Most of the waste-to-coal plants likely can meet the new standards for mercury emissions. But the new acceptable level for hydrochloric acid (HCI) has plant operators scrambling.

The hydrochloric acid level could push these plants out of business, said Jeff McNelly, executive director of the Anthracite Region Independent Power Producers Association, a Camp Hill-based nonprofit coal trade organization.

PennFuture, the state’s leading environmental group, acknowledges the benefits of eliminating the bony piles.

“We recognize that burning waste coal provides substantial environmental benefit,” said George Jugovic Jr., PennFuture president and CEO.

“Sometimes you need to be sensible about protecting and cleaning up your environment. There is no perfect solution, so you pick and choose.”

McNelly and others maintain that the EPA, in developing the new standards, did not look closely at the waste-to-energy process, including the lack of technology to meet the HCI standards.

“We can meet the primary goal, EPA’s new mercury emissions standards,” he said. “We do not know of any vendors or any possible way to reach the (HCI) goal set.”

Another concern is that steps taken to meet the standards may make ash from the plants unusable for environmental purposes. Currently, much of that ash is used in mine reclamation projects.

Under the new emissions standards, communities such as Lilly and Colver will continue to exist beside towering coal waste dumps, which send acid mine drainage into nearby waterways every time it rains, McNelly said.

“They’re looking for significant change. This is not a minor tweak to the (standards),” he said.

Pennsylvania Sens. Bob Casey and Pat Toomey, along with Reps. Mark Critz, D-Johns­town, and Bill Shuster, R-Hollidaysburg, and others are asking the EPA to create a separate subcategory for the waste-coal plants.

In a letter to EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, the lawmakers said the plants need the agency’s new regulations to better reflect the nature of cleaning up coal waste.

“The industry provides the only current viable option for removing coal refuse stockpiles from the environment without shifting such costs to public sources,” the legislators wrote. “Should that option become unavailable, the entire responsibility for removal and cleanup would fall on taxpayers and the government.”

Without the help of the private waste-coal companies, it would take 500 years and billions of dollars to accomplish the cleanup, the state Department of Environmental Protection estimates.

Robb Piper, director of the Cambria County Conservation District, pointed to the significance of eliminating high acid runoff into streams and rivers.

“These guys are cleaning up the environment. They’re doing land reclamation and we’re seeing the water being cleaned up,” Piper said.

He estimated that more than 1,000 acres of formerly scarred land in Cambria County has been reclaimed. The impact on the community from removal of the bony piles is beyond measure.

“One of the better parts of it is that there is no local cost, and it’s just a fantastic improvement in the landscape,” he said.

The thought of local money cleaning up the bony piles in the Lilly area leaves Guzic shaking his head.

“They’ve got grass planted over there. They’ve done a wonderful job.” Guzic said. “I don’t know how many people have told us that this is the best thing that has happened here.”

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