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December 12, 2012

A dream for a stream: Topper Run cleanup gets approval from feds

ST. MICHAEL — Jack Cummings came to the St. Michael fire hall on Tuesday in the hopes of hearing something he believed might never happen – the state allowing Rosebud Mining to clean up Topper Run.

Cummings, 56, the closest resident to the acid mine discharge, did not go away disappointed.

“This stream, I didn’t foresee it ever happening,” Cummings said. “I walked through it when I was a kid to get from one side of the stream to the other, but we had to go to Bedford County to fish.”

The long-awaited word that the state Department of Environmental Protection had received the go-ahead from the federal Environmental Protection Agency for the cleanup of the 50-year-old discharge, which causes 30 percent of the pollution of the Little Conemaugh River, was nearly shouted to a packed house at the fire station.

By reducing the water level of the massive mine pool through treatment, the door is opened for Rosebud to mine the rich, high metallurgic coal reserves below, a reserve with an estimated value of $3 billion to $4 billion.

Mining the deeper level of the mine will create an estimated 100 jobs during the next few years at a time when Rosebud’s operation in the Windber area will be phased out.

“DEP has signed a groundbreaking order and agreement with the company to treat the St. Michael discharge,” John Stefanko, DEP deputy secretary, told the crowd. “This plan will eliminate a major source of acid mine drainage into the Little Conemaugh River and it will allow Rosebud to safely mine the significant coal reserve adjacent to the St. Michael discharge.”

Stefanko said he knows first hand the impact of AMD at St. Michael and farther north on the Little Conemaugh. He is the son of Jack and Louise Stefanko of Portage, the town where he grew up.

“This is going to work. This is going to work very well,” Stefanko said.

Especially gratifying is the $50 million investment Rosebud is making to the St. Michael area, Stefanko said.

Rosebud plans to spend about $15 million for design and construction of the treatment plant on the site of the former Maryland No. 1 mine site behind the St. Michael fire hall.

The remainder, estimated at about $35 million, will be put into a trust fund by Rosebud to provide funding for perpetual treatment of the discharge.

Taking that first $15 million gamble, Rosebud started planning for the massive project five years ago, said company founder and President Cliff Forest.

“The prospect of cleaning this water up became a passion,” he said.

Rosebud engineers started designing the massive lime-based treatment plant in early 2010. Rosebud’s John Garcia started talking to environmental organizations and local community leaders to generate support, Forest said.

“It was a project that was not going to happen without community support, and I always felt the most important thing you can do is build a good rapport with the community,” Forest said.

Community support came from people such as Mike Kane of the Community Foundation for the Alleghenies and Robb Piper, head of the Cambria County Conservation District, and it grew from there.

When it came time to lobby DEP, Rosebud was able to include 450 letters of support, an unprecedented number, Garcia said.

But the obstacle was not the state. Rather, it was the EPA, which said the treated water had to meet drinking water standards before it could be discharged into the Little Conemaugh, a standard that made the project cost-prohibitive, Garcia said.

Through months of negotiations, Rosebud and DEP were ultimately able to convince EPA to allow a concession in the amount of pollution from the St. Michael discharge if the company agreed treat other smaller AMD seeps in the area, officials said.

EPA recently gave its approval to the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System permit, the document needed for Rosebud to put the treated water into the river.

The agreement opens the door to other AMD and water discharge agreements with EPA.

“The result was the first mining permit issued in Pennsylvania to require Rosebud to document that its treatment of the St. Michael discharge and others as part of its mining operation is improving water quality,” Stefanko said.

He said it also is the first agreement to provide a method to calculate and report acid mine drainage load reductions on the river.

The treatment plant is nearly completed and likely will be operational in the spring, said Rosebud engineer Brad Parker.

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