New technologies help clean up coal piles from PA communities


OVERSHADOWED: The town of Nanty Glo is in part dwarfed by the abandoned coal-waste piles, which are now being burned in power plants. This is also the site where coyotes now come for imagined rabbits.

By Rachel Martin |

PITTSBURGH — Coal-waste dumps are a serious, well-known problem for communities intimate with King Coal, yet the money to address these problems is often lacking. The free market has created an innovative solution, however, and one facility in Pennsylvania has reclaimed millions of tons of coal waste from the edges of two communities.

Carol Trammel lives in the small former coal camp of Revloc. Though she doesn’t count herself an “old-timer,” she’s lived there for 30 years. She remembers well what the town was like before cleanup began on its massive coal pile.

“It was just black … your house was black,” Trammel said. The wind regularly blew waste from the nearby pile, and you had to wash your windows “all the time.”

Images from Ebensburg Power Company and Google Earth

BEFORE AND NEARLY AFTER: The coal pile sites in Revloc, both before and as the cleanup project was nearing completion.

The waste pile also often regularly smoldered, and the town often smelled of sulfur — especially on overcast, damp days. Like many of the piles, this one, too, was attractive to kids, and her neighbor told Trammel of riding his bike on it, when he was young. She doesn’t like to think about it, but thinks her son probably did too.

Atop the hill was the Lonely Tree, as they called it. She and others wondered how it survived up there. Trammel wasn’t among those that ventured up the prohibited pile of waste.

As cleanup work finally began, a friend pulled Trammel out onto the porch and exclaimed, “Look, come here: you can see Ebensburg!” None of the neighboring town had previously been visible.

An expensive mess

One dump site, in Nanty Glo, estimated to have begun in the 1870s, covered nearly 150 acres in two massive piles.

According to a 2004 Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection study, a conservative estimate put unreclaimed waste piles at 8,500 acres and a volume of more than 212 million cubic yards of material.

Graphic by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection

LAND ONCE LOST: This graphic, in the DEP’s 2004 book on “Coal Ash Beneficial Use in Mine Reclamation and Mine Drainage Remediation in Pennsylvania,” shows land reclaimed by these power plants burning waste.

That would fill Pittsburgh’s iconic Steel Building 164 times, plus 49 extra floors’ full.

The state Bureau of Abandoned Mine Reclamation estimated the “price tag to eliminate Pennsylvania’s (abandoned mine land) problems is a staggering $14.6 billion.” That includes work on the “up to 3,100 miles of streams degraded by acid mine drainage as a result of abandoned mines.”

Acid mine drainage is one of the biggest sources of water pollution in Pennsylvania, and these coal waste piles are a major contributor. But reclamation money is limited, and those drainage problems are mostly considered “environmental degradation,” a lower priority compared to issues more acutely impacting health and safety, which receive more of the money earmarked for reclamation.

New technologies help the effort

In the past few decades, a new type of technology for coal burning — fluidized bed combustion — has allowed these piles to finally be useful, to generate electricity and steam. Plants that sell steam to at least one customer are called cogeneration plants.

Prior to this development, coal that was too contaminated with rock or other material couldn’t be burned, and was simply dumped out of the way as it was mined.

Western Pennsylvania Coalition for Abandoned Mine Reclamation calls cogeneration plants “the cleanest burning, minimally polluting coal-fired power generating stations in the world.”

Eric Cavazza, director of the state Bureau of Abandoned Mine Reclamation, said they’re “the best solution.”

This new wave of power companies now have an incentive to collect these mountains of waste. They burn it, in a process that adds limestone and removes the acidity from the material. Additionally, because of the differences in the process, the amount of air pollution is reduced compared to traditional coal-fired power plants.

The ash remaining from the process can often be used, either in regrading the original site or even strip-mine sites, where there is a need for fill material.

Andy McAllister, regional coordinator for WPCAMR, estimates that from these power companies hauling away 212 million tons of coal refuse, which had covered more than 8,000 acres, taxpayers have saved up to $224 million.

Because funds don’t have to be spent to cleanup these sites, that taxpayer money can be used on other projects, he explained.

It’s not really feasible for the government to pay for all of these projects itself, McAllister said, and “people don’t really want (the government) to — it would raise taxes.”

Brandon Diehl, grant and project consultant with the Foundation for Pennsylvania’s Watersheds, said the state will sometimes subsidize some of the trucking costs on some of the bigger cleanup projects to make the project economically feasible for the power company.

Improving Revloc

Gary Anderson, plant manager of the Ebensburg Power Co., the one that reclaimed the waste piles in Revloc, estimated the company removed 8 million tons of waste from that site, which is seven miles from the plant. The company is working on two piles in Nanty Glo and has other projects planned.

Photo by Rachel Martin

READY TO BURN: This is a pile of the material at the Nanty Glo East site, ready to go to the Ebensburg Power Company.

Anderson said almost all the workers are local and former traditional miners. Mining superintendent Tom Cunningham added that some of the plant employees are Navy veterans with useful experience.

“These guys are really proud of what they do — and they should be,” said Anderson.

Not everyone thinks these power plants are a good idea. Mike Ewall, founder and director of the Energy Justice Network, said this process just turns a water problem into a water and air problem. He disputes findings asserting the pollution is less.

You’re “just switching the pollutants,” he said.

“Nothing is perfect,” McAllister said. “We don’t live in a perfect world.”

He said old-timers come to him — after projects are completed, the waste is gone and the streams are no longer orange — crying, because they didn’t think their communities could be any different.

Anderson said you have to look at on-the-ground results. A stream near the Revloc sites had been biologically dead, he said, but now has trout. (For a basic primer on AMD, pH and water pollution’s impact on fish, see here.)

Some of the sites increasingly look like meadows and wooded hillsides. You really wouldn’t know they’d once housed towering piles of waste.

Photo by Rachel Martin

MERELY MEADOW: The once-large coal-waste pile that blackened residents’ homes in Revloc, Penn., is now a meadow.

Wildlife is returning to the areas as well. Anderson and Cunningham have seen deer, turkey, rabbits, black bear and coyote.

Cunningham said particular pieces of the machinery, a pin, sometimes, get hot and begin to squeal — which apparently sounds, at least to the coyotes, like a wounded rabbit, and they come running.