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Turning coal waste into light

BAKERTON, Pa. - The West Fork of the Susquehanna River runs amber yellow after gurgling past the "boney pile," a heap of coal-mining waste dumped here nearly a century ago.

Poisoned by sulfuric acid and hydrogen sulfide leaching from the smoldering mound, the headwaters are lifeless. No algae. No damselflies. No trout.

Other boney piles, an estimated 100 million tons just in the vicinity, litter the terrain in this picked-over, coal-mining region, catching fire and fouling streams.

For decades, mine operators dumped boney, the name apparently came from the British "bone coal" for coal mixed with ash, because their customers didn't want a product with such poor energy content. In other parts, the coal waste is better known as "culm" or "gob," short for "garbage off bituminous."

Now, Houston-based Reliant Energy plans to use these piles to generate enough electricity to light about half a million homes.

For years, Reliant and other power companies had passed over coal as a fuel for electricity generation in favor of cleaner-burning natural gas, a decision some are beginning to rue as gas prices rise ever higher.

Other power producers had used coal waste before, but Reliant's station is on a grander scale. When fully commercial by year's end, the 521-megawatt plant will rank as the largest waste-coal-fired plant in the world.

State officials are ecstatic. Reliant and other power companies willing to burn coal waste offer a solution to an environmental problem Pennsylvania has never had the money to clean up.

Environmentalists give the $800 million, "clean coal" project more mixed reviews. While they cheer the improvements to water quality cleaning up the boney piles will produce, they point out that coal remains the dirtiest of fuels for power generation.

"To call it `clean' does violence to the English language," noted John Hanger, president of Citizens for Pennsylvania's Future.

Many locals, too, are ambivalent. After all, the smelly, unsightly boney piles are the legacy of their fathers' and grandfathers' labors, relics of a more prosperous past.

"Boney piles are a way of life," said Ann Evans, a local resident catching lunch in nearby Ebensburg.

For more than a century, this region straddling the Eastern Continental Divide was pockmarked with active coal mines.

Surreal landscape

Retired coal miner J. Paul Hannigan, 83, can rattle off the names of more than a dozen mines that once operated within a few miles of Bakerton, itself once a company town.

"They're all shut up now," Hannigan said. "They're all closed down."

The boney piles remained.

Near Ebensburg, Bethlehem Steel's mining operation, Beth Mines, dumped boney into a steep valley for 32 years, creating a 40 million-ton pile some 195 feet deep.

On a crisp October morning, with the sun rising over the Allegheny Mountains and mist steaming up from the hills, these 260 acres of black rock and ash create an eerie, netherworldly landscape.

Bulldozers plow through the coal waste, loading it onto dump trucks to take the fuel to Reliant's new power station in nearby Seward.

"We're going to clean this entire place up, down to the original ground," said Jim Panaro, general manager of Robindale Energy Services, Reliant's fuel supplier.

Reliant first entered this market four years ago. Eager to participate in a deregulating electricity market, the company purchased 21 power plants in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Maryland, including the Seward station, for $2.1 billion.

But Seward had its problems.

Built in 1921 at the mouth of the Conemaugh No. 1 mine, the plant had provided power to the area for generations.

But the plant was situated in the flood plain of the Conemaugh River. In fact, the 1977 flood covered the station with 22 feet of water.

The mine closed in 1982, leaving behind 2 million tons of coal waste contaminating the Conemaugh.

Fuel is free

For years, officials at the Seward site had discussed the idea of using coal waste to fire the plant, noted Dick Imler, the plant's general manager.

Other companies in the area were using the material on a limited scale.

Reliant officials bought into the coal waste plan. The state government, wanting to clean up the Conemaugh while retaining as many jobs as possible in this economically depressed region, authorized $400 million worth of tax-exempt revenue bonds to help with financing.

No power company in the state had built what was essentially a new coal-fired plant in two decades.

Rebuilding the power station meant Reliant had to install new technology to comply with tougher federal pollution laws.

The plant uses a technique called "circulating fluidized bed combustion" to burn the coal waste. Limestone is added in the process to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions.

The big advantage of coal waste is cost. It's free. Reliant only has to truck in the fuel.

Reliant had plenty of coal waste on site, but the boney pile there was of such poor quality it couldn't be used.

Under a consent order with the state to clean up the site, Reliant mixed in ash with the boney pile to neutralize its acidity and buried the pile on the property.

The company then built the new facility on top of the boney pile, thereby raising the power station out of the flood plain.

When fully operational, the plant will use 3.5 million tons of coal waste a year. The heap in Bakerton, about 70 percent of which will go to Reliant's Seward plant, should be cleaned up within four years, the Ebensburg pile within 16 years.

To supply the plant with coal waste and limestone, some 720 trucks are slated to run in and out every day. Unsurprisingly, local residents are concerned about truck traffic.

Pollution standards

The plant will be significantly cleaner than the old coal facility it replaced, dramatically reducing air pollutants while generating 2 1/2 times as much power. But it still will release far more pollution than a comparable, gas-fired plant.

The new plant, for instance is permitted to release 5.83 pounds of sulfur dioxide per megawatt of power generated. That's far better than the 47.1 pounds the old plant was allowed to release.

But Reliant's combined-cycle, gas-turbine plant in Hunterstown, Pa., is allowed to release no more than 0.0117 pounds of sulfur dioxide per megawatt.

Environmentalists also worry about carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. It's unregulated by the federal government but many scientists believe it is contributing to global warming. The new plant will release twice as much carbon dioxide emissions as the Hunterstown plant.

Despite the environmental problems, coal-fired power plants are likely to be a fixture in this country for years to come. Currently, about half the electricity generated in this country comes from burning coal.

And in this area, anything that gives a boost to the coal industry is still widely popular.

Local residents, while happy to see a power plant using coal, are rather conflicted about losing the boney piles. They've grown up with the heaps and clambered on them as kids.

Retired miner Hannigan developed black lung disease from working in the mines, but as for the boney piles, "they didn't hurt me."

Albert O'Brien, another retired coal miner from Bakerton, had a boney pile across the street from his house, and another one behind. Those two heaps have been removed, and he has two horses that now graze on what had been a refuse dump.

"Bakerton looks a little better. It's grass, not dirt blowing around," O'Brien said.

But the neighborhood also gets more wind with the boney piles gone, O'Brien said, an unpleasant side effect in a town settling in for its typically harsh winters.

And for O'Brien and the others here, the boney piles were never really the eyesores others might see.

"We're a coal-mining town," O'Brien said. "I was a coal miner until I got hurt."

The boney piles were here because the mines were working, O'Brien said, "I'd like to see the coal mines open up again."

david.ivanovich@chron.com

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