Waste Coal: A terrible alternative




By Dennis Groce

Though it defies all reason, Pennsylvania utility companies are allowed to use waste coal to meet their alternative energy requirements. Although the mining and power-generation industries claim that the piles of waste coal littering our state can be disposed of by burning it—and that clean energy can be produced at the same time—the truth is exactly the opposite. Burning waste coal just produces another kind of waste. When 100 tons of waste coal is burned, approximately 85 tons of toxic ash is produced.

As for the industry’s claim that it can produce clean energy from waste coal, the fact is that power plants that burn it actually emit more mercury per megawatt than traditional coal-fired plants. That’s because waste coal has up to three and a half times more mercury than bituminous coal. And since it generally takes up to twice as much waste coal to produce the same amount of electricity, waste-fired plants can release as much as six times the amount of mercury into the air per megawatt than traditional coal-fired plants. A good example is the newly permitted Greene Energy Resource Recovery Project (GERRP), which will be allowed to emit nearly three times as many fine particulates, as well as twice as much sulfur dioxide and fifty percent more oxides of nitrogen than a recently permitted traditional coal-fired power plant being built outside of Morgantown, WV. In total, the GERRP waste coal plant will be permitted to emit nearly 41 tons of pollution every day.

In the last several years, two western Pennsylvania waste coal plants have received permits from the Department of Environmental Protection: the Beech Hollow Plant, which will be located in Washington County’s Robinson Township and GERRP, which is planned for Greene County’s Cumberland Township. A third plant near Central City, Somerset County is also on the table.

In legal appeals regarding GERRP, members of the Pennsylvania Chapter joined forces with Pittsburgh’s Group Against Smog and Pollution (GASP), the National Parks Conservancy Association, and the University of Pittsburgh’s Environmental Law Clinic, which was instrumental in assisting with the early legal work. Despite excellent grounds for appeal, rulings by the Environmental Hearing Board, Commonwealth Court, and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court have so far been unfavorable. The good news is that neither the Beech Hollow Project nor the GERRP plants have begun construction in earnest, so further legal action is possible at the federal level.

Despite all reason, and a number of cold, hard facts, the Pennsylvania legislature continues to regard waste coal an alternative energy source in several bills under consideration in Harrisburg. If passed, waste coal technology could receive funding, as one of a number of eligible alternative energy sources. Making waste coal eligible for funding as an alternative energy solution is not only absurd, but funding it will divert desperately needed capital investment from legitimate alternative energy technologies.
The eight coal-fired plants burning waste coal in our state are major contributors to the global warming gases emitted from Pennsylvania. Given that our state emits one percent of the world’s greenhouse gases, our legislature needs to promote clean energy solutions to reduce our carbon output.

As for the remaining gob piles, a more environmentally-sound remedy for dealing with the pollution would be to treat the waste coal in the same way we treat other hazardous wastes—geologically encapsulate it until better long term solutions are available. At the very least, appropriate groundcovers should be planted around their base to keep leachate from polluting nearby streams. In the meantime, the best use of public and private funding would be to support research into other ways of addressing the issue.

For more information, see www.pewclimate.org.

Dennis Groce is a civil engineer working in public health research and is a member of the Allegheny Group.

Published April 2008