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By Stephen Lee
Power companies that generate energy from decades-old waste piles they clean up would get a lifeline under a bill House Republicans have started moving forward.
Without the help, four of the nation’s 18 coal refuse plants—three in Pennsylvania and one in West Virginia—will likely go out of business in April 2019, said Sean Lane, executive vice president of governmental affairs at investment and management firm Olympus Power LLC. That’s when an existing waiver for waste-to-power companies under the EPA’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standards rule will expire.
The Satisfying Energy Needs and Saving the Environment (SENSE) Act ( H.R. 1119) would essentially keep that waiver going, lowering coal refuse companies’ compliance obligations under the mercury rule. It would also grant the industry additional sulfur dioxide emissions credits under the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule.
The House passed the SENSE Act last year, but it was never taken up in the Senate. Much of the bill’s momentum dissipated after President Barack Obama said he would veto the legislation.
But the calculus could be different this time, given that President Donald Trump supports fossil fuel energy and reduced regulations.
“With President Trump, we finally have a partner in the White House who understands the importance of the coal industry in Pennsylvania,” Rep. Lou Barletta (R-Pa.) told Bloomberg BNA. “I am hopeful the SENSE Act will pass the House again this year.”
On Sept. 13, the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on the Environment convened a hearing about the SENSE Act and three other bills, sending a signal that Republicans will be moving it forward soon.
Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), who chairs the full committee, said the four bills don’t repeal any regulations, but “simply make minimal adjustments in order to reduce the risk of plant shutdowns and layoffs.”
No House markup has been scheduled, according to a Republican Energy and Commerce Committee aide. However, Rep. Keith Rothfus (R-Pa.), the bill’s sponsor, told Bloomberg BNA that he intends to push for the bill’s passage “very aggressively” in this session of Congress.
Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) told Bloomberg BNA that waste coal plants “provide the only current viable option for removing the hundreds of gob piles that blot Pennsylvania’s landscape,” using a local term to refer to coal refuse.
“The EPA should fully recognize the environmental benefit to waste coal plants and update the agency’s regulations so cleanup of refuse piles can continue,” Toomey said.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) told Bloomberg BNA that the SENSE Act “wasn’t on his radar,” but that he was aware of the problem of waste coal piles.
During the hearing, Vince Brisini, Olympus’ director of environmental affairs, testified that coal refuse companies need the waivers because some of the material burned in their specialized plants emits more sulfur dioxide than ordinary coal.
Despite those higher emissions, the industry provides a net environmental benefit, because in retrieving the waste fuel the companies also clean up heavily polluted mine lands that leach acid mine drainage into waterways, Gary Merritt, manager of regulatory affairs at Northern Star Generation, told Bloomberg BNA.
The piles also frequently catch on fire, sometimes smoldering underground for decades and emitting volatile organic compounds, Merritt said.
The waste-to-energy business in Pennsylvania has cleaned up more than 200 million tons of coal refuse, restored more than 1,200 miles of streams, and reclaimed more than 7,000 acres of abandoned mine lands, according to Brisini, former deputy secretary at the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s Office of Waste, Air, Radiation, and Remediation.
Neither the federal nor state government in Pennsylvania, where the industry is mostly based, have the money to pay for cleanup any time soon, George Ellis, executive director of the Anthracite Region Independent Power Producers Association, told Bloomberg BNA.
The reclamation of mines abandoned before the 1977 passage of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act is paid for out of the federal Abandoned Mine Land fund, which itself is funded by a tax on coal production. But that program prioritizes the most dangerous mine sites first, and most coal refuse piles are so far down the list that the fund, which expires in 2021, doesn’t have enough in reserve to pay for them.
Another reason congressional help is needed is that the coal refuse industry is an underdog in the overall power generation market, Ellis said.
Compared to the 7,700 coal-fired power plants in the U.S. that deliver 306,000 megawatts, the nation’s 18 coal refuse-fired units deliver a collective capacity of just 1,800 megawatts, according to Ellis.
“This is not an industry whose projects are controlled by large merchant generators or private equity funds,” Lane added. Rather, he said, most coal refuse companies are owned and operated by small, independent power investors or families.
The industry directly employs at least 800 people. Counting spinoff jobs, the figure is closer to 3,800, Ellis said.
Not everyone shares a rosy view of the industry. Alexandra Teitz, former counselor to the director of the Bureau of Land Management, told the House panel that the SENSE Act would “grant favors to special interests, picking winners and losers,” and overturn evidence-based scientific decisions made by government agencies and courts.
“The loopholes are neither necessary nor justified, but the bills would allow these specific entities to meet looser standards, delay their clean-ups, or avoid regulation altogether,” Teitz said.
Rebecca Bascom, a professor at Penn State College of Medicine, said she agreed that the waste should be gotten rid of, but added that burning it and dispersing it over a wide area seems like “a bad idea” because it could cause harmful health effects.
Sulfur dioxide causes asthma and bronchoconstriction, a narrowing of the airways that causes difficulty breathing, Bascom told the panel.
Brisini countered that the SENSE Act would only provide alternative sulfur dioxide limits for six plants.
“Abandoning the controlled combustion and reclamation of the most high-sulfur coal refuse piles would effectively relegate the surrounding communities to living with the uncontrolled air and water pollution from these sites in perpetuity,” Brisini said.
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