From: Mike Joseph, Centre Daily Times
Published November 29, 2004 12:00 AM

International Forum to Take up Acid-Pollution Problem

STATE COLLEGE, Penn. - Penn State scientists and ClearWater Conservancy will convene an international conference of acid-pollution experts to offer their knowledge to state officials facing decisions on the pyrite cleanup at an Interstate 99 construction site at Skytop.


The principal organizers, two retired geological science professors, said they scheduled the Dec. 20-21 conference on short notice to provide the information before the year's end, when the state departments of Transportation and Environmental Protection expect to decide how to proceed with the cleanup.


"Part of what we're trying to do is educate," geologist David Gold told ClearWater Conservancy officers Wednesday. "Other parts of the world have been looking at these issues for 150 years, and they have got solutions ... We'd like PennDOT and DEP to be aware of these other alternatives."


Gold and geochemist Hu Barnes have invited experts from Japan, Australia, Virginia and elsewhere to address what they hope will be an audience that includes as many PennDOT and DEP decision-makers as possible. They did not ask the state agencies to help sponsor the conference because they want it to be apolitical, they said.


Barnes said the presentations in a 200-seat auditorium in Penn State's Hosler Building will focus on practical applications of current understanding. He said organizers want the conference to get down to the business of airing and explaining effective solution options. Informal discussion sessions are planned between presentations.


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"We're looking at people worldwide and they're the best in the business," Barnes said. "It's a technical meeting, it's not entertainment and the time is pretty short." I-99 road builders in 2003 unearthed nearly a million cubic yards of pyritic rocks at Skytop and dumped it in spoil piles and fill areas.


The scope of the environmental hazard this created was first made public by the Centre Daily Times in February.


PennDOT and DEP have spent the year trying to keep the sulfuric acid runoff from the pyrite out of area streams and groundwater while working to devise a permanent solution to the problem.


A ClearWater Conservancy member, who was not identified, donated several thousand dollars for travel and lodging for conference participants on the condition that the 700-member environmental organization agree to join Penn State's geosciences department as co-sponsor.


ClearWater's officers voted to do so Wednesday, saying it was in keeping with a decision by the full 24-member board in March to ask PennDOT to engage a panel of local professionals as part of the technical review process in evaluating solutions.


In addition to local professionals, a Japanese expert on grouting processes for pyritic sites is expected at the conference. In Japan, highway excavations are often made through volcanic geologic structures, which feature ore-like veins of pyrite similar to what road builders encountered at Skytop.


One of the major unanswered questions facing PennDOT and DEP decision-makers is how to stop acidic runoff from bleeding out of the 250-foot-high wall, known as a cut face, left by the road excavation. Barnes said the Japanese have handled similar problems well.


"They have enormous experience and we should tap it," he said. "That's what we want to do." Also planning to attend is David McConchie, geology professor at Australia's Southern Cross University and a director of the Australian company Virotec, whose environmental engineering work includes neutralizing acid, trapping trace metals, preventing leaching and promoting vigorous plant growth on once-acidic soil.


McConchie said Wednesday that acid formation from pyrite is Australia's biggest environmental problem by far.


He said he plans to bring and discuss the Australian government's recently published assessment criteria, the result of 10 years of research in evaluating acid-rock drainage. He also will talk about acid controls.


"I'm here primarily as a problem solver," McConchie said from Virotec's Golden, Colo., office.


Others from outside the area planning to participate include J.D. Rimstidt, chair of the geological science department at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University; Martin Schoonen, vice president for research in the geological sciences at State University of New York-Stony Brook. From closer to home, Ryan Mathur, Juniata College geology professor, will also attend.


"We thought we'd have a major problem because of the (Christmas week) schedule, but we have not had anyone turn us down," Barnes said. "They all thought this was important enough and they'd like to participate."


Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News


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