Senators want waste-coal-fired power plants in Pa. exempted from EPA rules

Pennsylvania’s U.S. Senators, Pat Toomey (R) and Bob Casey (D), are backing an amendment to a Keystone XL pipeline bill that would exempt Pennsylvania’s waste-coal-fired power plants from two U.S. Environmental Protection Agency clean-air programs.

These plants are considered a key to Pennsylvania eliminating, within the constraints of federal and state mine reclamation budgets, massive piles of waste coal that accumulated in the years prior to a 1977 federal surface mining law that mandated reclamation of future such sites by the site operators. Past sites were grandfathered, though, and the U.S. Office of Surface Mining’s reclamation budget, which is based on fees on current coal production, has never been high enough to in any way quickly fund cleanup of the old sites.

Toomey, in a Jan. 12 floor speech, as reported in the Congressional Record, said he supports several amendments to the Keystone XL bill. “But the amendment I wish to talk about is another bipartisan amendment. I thank Senator Casey for being the Democratic cosponsor for this amendment, and I thank Senator [Orrin] Hatch for joining me. This is an amendment that will preserve an important, environmentally beneficial source of alternative energy that we have especially in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, and it is under threat by two new rules that have been proposed by the EPA.”

Notable is that Hatch, a Republican, is from Utah, a state with its own waste coal piles, though not nearly on the same level as those in Pennsylvania.

“Let me give a little bit of background as to why we have gotten to this place,” Toomey said. “In Pennsylvania and West Virginia we have been mining coal for well over a century, and for many of the decades, especially in the early years of our coal development, we took the high-energy density coal and our coal miners sold it to the steel industry where it was used in the manufacturing process of making steel, and the low-energy coal was left in piles – huge piles – actually mountains. It is often referred to as waste coal.

“The first photograph illustrates one of these waste coal piles. It is in Nanty Glo in Cambria County, PA. It is one of many piles or, as I say, mountains throughout Pennsylvania and West Virginia. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection estimates that there are 2 billion tons of waste coal such as this covering 180,000 acres in Pennsylvania alone. Think about that. It is a massive scale because of over a century of legacy of coal mining. Some of these piles are literally in people’s backyards.

“What is the problem with these mountains? The problem with these mountains of coal is it rains on them, and when it rains the runoff is horrendous. It looks like this. It looks like this in every one of these mountains of waste coal everywhere that one exists, every time it rains. In 2003 in an op-ed entitled “The Benefits of Waste Coal,” former Democratic Governor of Pennsylvania Ed Rendell’s Department of Environmental Protection secretary, whose name is Kathleen McGinty, wrote: “For years these piles sat abandoned, generating iron, manganese and aluminum pollution that discharged as runoff into Pennsylvania’s waterways.

“In 2007 former Democratic Governor of Pennsylvania, Ed Rendell said: ‘These piles are domestic energy sources that have significant value when put into production in CFB cogeneration plants. When left on the ground, waste coal presents a grave environmental threat. Runoff from these piles contributes to the ‘abandoned mine drainage’ that is the second leading water pollution problem in the Commonwealth, literally killing all life in some 2,000 stream miles in Pennsylvania.'”

These waste piles also sometimes catch fire. “They spontaneously combust,” Toomey said. “It could be from lightning, carelessness, and sometimes it is unknown, but they catch fire.” Toomey said the Pennsylvania DEP estimates that 6.6 million tons of waste coal burns each year, and in the process it emits 9 million tons of CO2 and many tons of other uncontrolled air pollution.

“What about cleaning all of this up? The costs would be absolutely staggering. Again, former Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection Secretary McGinty estimated that it costs between $20,000 and $40,000 to reclaim just one acre of waste coal. We have hundreds of thousands of acres of waste coal. The Pennsylvania General Assembly has estimated it would cost approximately $15 billion to remediate Pennsylvania’s abandoned mine set.”

Toomey: waste coal power plants are the best way to deal with this problem

The free market has developed a way to systematically eliminate these mountains of waste coal, and for decades there have been power plants designed specifically for the purpose of burning this coal and doing so in a controlled and regulated fashion. They have removed 210 million tons of waste coal and used it to produce electricity. They have remediated over 8,000 acres. They have generated 1.769 gigawatts of electricity, Toomey noted.

In the past, the EPA has always acknowledged the benefits of systematically eliminating these mountains of waste coal and doing so by generating electricity, the senator said. The problem is that there are two new rules passed by the EPA that would bring an end to the systemic elimination of these mountains. It is not possible for the waste coal power plants to comply with these rules, so they would all be shut down and Pennsylvania would be left with these piles indefinitely.

“The two specific rules that would do this – the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule is very likely to have the effect of imposing absolutely unattainable goals on waste coal power plants, and the utility MACT rule establishes new and very stringent emission controls and a whole new generation of very stringent regulations that this industry cannot meet,” Toomey said. “If these rules go into effect – and they are scheduled to go into effect later this year – then waste coal and electric generation ends, and these plants close. As a result, we lose the electric power they have been generating, the 1,200 jobs they sustain, and the low-cost energy that is reliable and domestic. We will end up with a more serious air pollution problem when the spontaneous combustion continues, and we will have an ongoing problem with water and air pollution as the nearby streams and water table will be polluted.

“That is why Senator Casey, Senator Hatch, and I have joined together to offer an amendment to this legislation that will exempt the waste coal power plants from the most onerous and prohibitive aspects of these new rules. With respect to utility MACT, we would retain all of the regulatory limits on mercury, chromium, nickel, and other heavy metals, but it would exempt the waste coal plants from the Cross-State Air Pollution rules, and it would allow these plants to continue remediating these waste coal sites. I wish to stress that it is important to point out that all of the existing regulations that have long been in effect will remain in effect. What we are talking about are the two new rules that would be guaranteed to shut down the industry. Those two rules would not go into effect with respect to the waste coal electric generation.”

More information on these plants is at the website of the Anthracite Region Independent Power Producers Association (ARIPPA), which was organized in 1988 as a non-profit trade association representing alternative energy plants that remove coal refuse from abandoned mine lands (AML) areas, convert it into electricity, and beneficially utilize the ash byproduct to reclaim thousands of acres of mined lands and hundreds of miles of formerly dead streams back to their natural state. These plants use fluidized-bed combustion technology, which means the ash byproduct from combustion is laced with the limestone used to control air emissions during combustion, with that ash/limestone mix able to buffer acids when buried back in the old mine sites.

ARIPPA member plants include:

  • Cambria Cogeneration, Ebensburg, Pa., 85 MW, began operating in 1991;
  • Colver Power Project, Colver, Pa., 105 MW, began operations in 1995.
  • Ebensburg Power, Ebensburg, Pa., 50 MW, began commercial operation in 1991.
  • Panther Creek Power Operating LLC, Nesquehoning, Pa., 83 MW, placed in operation in 1993.
  • Scrubgrass Generating, Kennerdell, Pa., 83 MW, full operations began in 1994.
About Barry Cassell 20414 Articles
Barry Cassell is Chief Analyst for GenerationHub covering coal and emission controls issues, projects and policy. He has covered the coal and power generation industry for more than 24 years, beginning in November 2011 at GenerationHub and prior to that as editor of SNL Energy’s Coal Report. He was formerly with Coal Outlook for 15 years as the publication’s editor and contributing writer, and prior to that he was editor of Coal & Synfuels Technology and associate editor of The Energy Report. He has a bachelor’s degree from Central Michigan University.