Feb. 7--NEW FLORENCE, Pa. -- Pennsylvania is littered with vast, abandoned piles of "boney" -- a mixture of coal, rock and clay that chokes the life out of creeks and streams, turning them a sickly shade of yellowish-orange.
This legacy of a century of mining -- more than a billion tons, by one estimate -- was left behind because it wasn't worth burning to make electricity.
On the banks of the Conemaugh River here, Houston-based Reliant Energy has built the Seward Power Plant, a high-tech facility specially designed to burn this "waste coal." At 521 megawatts, it is the largest such plant in the world, consuming 11,000 tons of waste coal every day.
"It's the worst of the worst fuel," said Richard Imler, general manager of the plant, which began full operation in October.
Because such plants get rid of an environmental problem, they qualify as a type of "alternative" energy under a new state law requiring that by 2020, 18 percent of electricity sold in the state must come from such sources. (See box.)
Some environmentalists were aghast that the word "coal" appeared in the same legislation with solar panels, windmills and other sources considered more eco-friendly. That's because waste-coal plants, though they get rid of a source of water pollution, still pollute the air.
Others were willing to compromise, given that coal mining has long been a pillar of the state's very identity. John Hanger, president of the Harrisburg-based nonprofit PennFuture, said waste coal is a political reality:
"There wasn't going to be a 1/8bill3/8 passed in Pennsylvania without it."
In Bakerton, Pa., on the west branch of the Susquehanna River, sometimes the water runs yellow. Other times it is blood red. No fish live here.
Miners dumped 1.4 million tons of waste coal along the river's banks prior to 1930. The blackish pile grew so big that it pushed the river out of its natural course.
Successive waves of immigrant miners added to the pile, which sometimes spontaneously catches fire. The Italians worked one mine, the Slovaks another, and so on. They lived in different neighborhoods in nearby Barnesboro, now part of Northern Cambria, forming what engineer Jim Panaro calls a "miniature Philadelphia."
Rain has been washing a steady diet of acidic waste into the river ever since, the result of iron pyrite and sulfur that occur naturally in coal.
Panaro, 39, who grew up in nearby St. Benedict, has been itching to get rid of the pile for most of his life.
Now it's his job.
As general manager of Robindale Energy Services Inc., Panaro supervises the daily shipment of 600 truckloads of waste coal to the Seward plant.
The fuel comes from the Bakerton pile and others like it, including a much larger, 40 million-ton heap in nearby Ebensburg.
Panaro's father helped create that one. He worked for 34 years in the mines, supporting eight children, and died of black-lung disease in 1989. He was 62.
Now Jim Panaro, the youngest of the eight, says he is closing the circle begun by miners like his father:
"He would've been amazed to see what we're able to do with what he thought was junk."
At the Seward plant, waste coal is screened to remove larger debris and then crushed.
Even after screening, it contains many impurities. It would not burn well in a traditional coal-fired power plant, where the fuel is fed continuously into the boilers and has only one chance to burn.
The solution: At Seward, enormous fans suspend the fuel in mid-air, blowing it several times through a sort of cyclical furnace so that every last bit of usable coal is burned.
"You get multiple bites at the apple," said Alan R. Metzer, the plant's technical manager.
This concept was developed in Europe in the 1980s and has been used in the United States on small plants for a few years, including several in Pennsylvania.
Though its technology is not new, Seward has attracted attention as the world's largest such plant. And because the facility is new, the law requires state-of-the-art controls to reduce air pollution.
So as coal-fired plants go, Seward is clean, causing far less acid rain, smog and fine-particle pollution than most. According to the federal Environmental Protection Agency, waste coal generally contains more mercury, but the plant is outfitted with fabric filters that are thought to remove most of the toxic metal.
Still, the Seward plant is much dirtier than plants that burn natural gas, the primary fossil-fuel alternative. And, as with other coal-burning plants, the company must also dispose of the leftover ash.
Most of the ash will be landfilled. Because it has an alkaline content, some is being used to reclaim the acidic soil left behind when the piles of waste coal are removed.
The ash is taken back to former waste sites, mixed with the soil, and grass is planted on top. The practice has the blessing of the state Department of Environmental Protection, which for years has allowed the use of coal ash to reclaim abandoned mines.
The ash contains some toxic metals, including arsenic, but DEP officials say there is no significant leaching into groundwater.
Nathan Willcox, energy advocate for the nonprofit group PennEnvironment, is skeptical.
"We don't argue 1/8with the fact3/8 that they're removing one environmental problem," he said of waste-coal plants. "It's a matter of asking the tough questions of what are you doing with the ash afterward."
The state requires regular testing of the groundwater at ash-disposal sites, but testing stops once vegetation is planted on top.
Charles Norris, a Denver-based geologist who has consulted for environmental groups and industry, said testing should continue long afterward because as it ages, the ash may be more likely to release its metal components.
Besides Pennsylvania, 17 states and Washington, D.C., have laws requiring the use of a certain percentage of "renewable" energy, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Cambridge, Mass. In New Jersey, 6.5 percent of energy sold in the state must be renewable by 2008.
Pennsylvania is the only one that includes waste coal in its mix. But then, Pennsylvania is the only one of the 18 states with a waste-coal problem.
State officials welcome the use of the new fuel. In a recent newspaper column, DEP secretary Kathleen McGinty labeled critics of waste coal as "anti-coal zealots."
In most cases, the companies responsible for creating the piles are long gone. Reliant Energy officials say that over the next 30 years, their Seward plant will get rid of 100 million tons -- at no cost to taxpayers.
The 1.4 million-ton pile in Bakerton will be gone in four years, said Panaro, whose employer was hired by the Seward plant to deliver the fuel.
But even that won't repair all the damage wrought by a century of mining. Larger rivers in Pennsylvania have a natural pH of at least 7. Below the Bakerton pile, the pH of the Susquehanna's west branch is 2.5 -- extremely acidic. Above the pile, the river is still too acidic, with a pH of 5.5, to support most life forms.
That's the fault of drainage from nearby mines, many of them abandoned and lacking a solvent mining company to pay for cleanup.
Yet Panaro, an avid sportsman, says every bit helps.
The Susquehanna shows signs of life about 10 miles south of Bakerton, near the town of Cherry Tree, where the acidity is diluted enough that hardy creatures such as catfish start to make an appearance. Smallmouth bass don't show up for a few more miles.
When the Bakerton pile is gone, he hopes, the fish will come further north.
"Every time we clean one of these piles," Panaro said, "it moves that line further upstream."
WASTE COAL ON ECO-FRIENDLY LIST
A new Pennsylvania law requires that by 2020, 18 percent of the electricity sold in the state come from renewable or environmentally beneficial sources. Eight percent must come from "tier one" sources -- those that are traditionally thought of as renewable -- and 10 percent from "tier two." For example:
Solar photovoltaic energy
Biologically derived methane gas
Energy efficiency measures
Byproducts of pulping and wood manufacturing processes
Source: Pennsylvania Senate Bill 1030.
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© 2005, The Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.