The defining landmark in Hazleton, Pa., when John Quigley was growing up in the 1960s was a giant pile of black, crumbly coal waste that had been there for as long as anyone could remember. Taller than a 20-story building, the heap covered an area the size of four football fields and even had its own name: the Jeansville Coal Bank.
"It was the Mount Everest of Hazleton," Quigley, who later became the city's mayor and then head of the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), told Bloomberg BNA. "It loomed over the city, which was a pretty interesting metaphor because Hazleton's whole history is interwoven with mining, and its decline was because of mining."
Now, specialty power companies such as Olympus Power LLC, Northern Star Generation LLC, Robindale Energy Services Inc., and the Rich Family of Companies are cleaning up those piles, pitching their efforts as a win-win: They get free scrap coal to burn for power, and the community gets free cleanup of their polluted land and water. The enthusiasm for such efforts is an acknowledgment that government efforts to clean up befouled lands can only go so far.
More than just eyesores, coal refuse piles leach acid mine drainage into streams, occasionally catch on fire—sometimes smoldering underground for decades and emitting volatile organic compounds—and pose a safety hazard for children who play on the unstable banks, said Vincent Brisini, former deputy secretary at Pennsylvania DEP's Office of Waste, Air, Radiation, and Remediation.
But now the companies say they might only be able to survive a few more years, thanks to growing pressure from cheap natural gas and environmental regulations. One coal refuse plant already has gone down: Piney Creek Power Plant, of Clarion, Pa., stopped operations in 2013, a victim of bruising energy markets.
If the nation's 18 remaining refuse plants also shut down, the 800 coal refuse piles scattered throughout Pennsylvania—to say nothing of the hundreds more in West Virginia, Kentucky, and other Appalachian states—will remain in place indefinitely, because neither the federal government nor the states have the money to clean them up, said John Stefanko, deputy secretary for the Office of Active and Abandoned Mine Operations at the Pennsylvania DEP.
That's why so many environmental groups, in an unlikely pairing, have given the coal refuse industry their stamp of approval. Their reasoning is that, even though the companies do burn coal, the environmental benefits of cleaning up the refuse piles outweigh the costs.
"We're very interested in partnering with the waste coal industry," Anne Daymut, watershed coordinator at the Western Pennsylvania Coalition for Abandoned Mine Reclamation, told Bloomberg BNA. "We do view it as a win-win."
The cost/benefit claims can't be precisely measured because much of the data has never been collected, largely due to a lack of funding, said George Ellis, executive director of the Anthracite Region Independent Power Producers Association, an industry trade group.
Fourteen facilities capable of burning coal refuse for power now operate in Pennsylvania, with two more in West Virginia, another in Wyoming, and one more in Utah. The industry is strongest in Pennsylvania because the state offers a more hospitable climate for independent power companies than most other states, said Sean Lane, Olympus Power's executive vice president of governmental affairs.
The industry hasn't taken off more broadly, Lane said, because environmental permitting regulations make it "extremely difficult and costly" to site new power plants. Economic forces are at play, too: energy and capacity pricing in the current marketplace run by PJM Interconnection LLC, operator of the nation's largest power grid, wouldn't sustain a new coal refuse plant, Lane said.
Corporate investors in the sector include General Electric Capital Corp., Energy Capital Partners, Dynegy Inc., and CalPERS, the largest public pension fund in the U.S. based in California.
Even given the incomplete data about the technology's costs and benefits, the industry's supporters seem to far outnumber its detractors. In addition to Daymut, representatives from the Eastern Pennsylvania Coalition for Abandoned Mine Reclamation, Schuylkill Conservation District, and Earth Conservancy, a group dedicated to reclamation of former coal mining lands, also told Bloomberg BNA that they support the industry.
Supporters of the industry include Joseph Pizarchik, who headed the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement under President Barack Obama, and both Republican and Democratic lawmakers in the Pennsylvania statehouse.
"These slag piles will be there in perpetuity," state Rep. Peter Schweyer (D) told Bloomberg BNA. "As a liberal Democrat, I am not of the opinion that [EPA chief Scott] Pruitt will do anything to help our slag piles. So we can either clean them ourselves or not. Yes, this is still a carbon-based fuel; it's going to have costs on the clean air side. But it helps so much in other ways that those benefits outweigh the costs."
A Low-Ranking Priority
In 1988, Quigley was elected mayor of Hazleton. Immediately he busied himself with the state's abandoned mine land problem. Including the coal refuse piles, Pennsylvania's overall reclamation bill has been pegged at $15 billion.
But the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement deems refuse piles such as the Jeansville Coal Bank as the lowest-priority sites. That meant Quigley couldn't spend federal dollars to clean them up until the higher-priority sites were addressed.
"I tried to develop plans to turn [the abandoned mine land sites] into productive use," Quigley said. "But that's a very long-term proposition, and I was only there for eight years. The whole problem of AML was well beyond the capacity of a city with a $6 million budget. So we didn't get much further than conceptual plans and aspirations."
The Jeansville Coal Bank remained in place. It caught fire underground in 2012; the fire is still burning today.
Fighting for Survival
In addition to the fires at coal refuse piles, dust laced with heavy metals can blow off the piles and into the water and soil, according to Brisini, who now serves as director of environmental affairs at Olympus Power.
The piles, often dangerously unstable and surrounded by physical hazards, also attract dirt bikers and all-terrain vehicle drivers. Most recently, Isael Ramirez died July 7 when he struck a gate outside a coal refuse pile while operating an ATV in Hughestown, Pa., the chief of police told Bloomberg BNA.
To keep the coal refuse industry afloat, its lobbyists want both a regulatory fix and an economic fix. Meanwhile, to help coal refuse plants stay competitive with other, cheaper forms of energy, Pennsylvania lawmakers inserted a tax credit for the industry into last year's state budget.
The tax credit, which was worth $7.5 million last year and $10 million per year for 10 years, won't come close to saving the industry on its own, according to Olympus Power's Lane. The industry had initially asked for $45 million.
Nevertheless, the credit "serves as an important statement in the public record of Pennsylvania’s support, and as a potential model solution, as we engage Congress in a dialogue regarding the preservation of this industry," Lane said.
'A Good-News Story'
The Pennsylvania DEP also recently found impressive reductions in water discharges after coal refuse piles were cleaned up. DEP found that, post cleanup of coal refuse piles, iron flowing into the Blacklick Creek watershed had been reduced by 99 percent, acidity by 96 percent, aluminum by 94 percent, manganese by 87 percent, and sulfate by 82 percent.
"We've got fish in the water now," Cambria County Commissioner Tom Chernisky told Bloomberg BNA. "People weren't fishing here before. This is a good-news story."
The 14 coal refuse plants in Pennsylvania have removed more than 200 million tons of coal waste, restored or improved more than 1,200 miles of streams and reclaimed more than 7,000 acres of abandoned mine lands, according to the Anthracite Region Independent Power Producers Association. Currently, the industry removes about 10 million tons of waste per year, the group said.
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