Pa. coal-to-oil plant draws concerns

Pa. coal-to-oil plant draws concerns

A coal-to-oil plant proposed in Schuylkill County is expected to create 150 jobs and 1,000 construction positions. But some residents are worried about environmental problems from waste the plant will produce.

“I know there’s going to be enormous amounts of slag and I don’t know how they’re going to get rid of it,” Mahanoy Township supervisors Chairwoman Sharon R. Chiao said. “I’m afraid there’s going to be mountains of slag just like we have mountains of ash right now.”

Frackville resident John E. Dyszel said he is worried about the gasifier slag, sludge and sulfur byproducts ending up in reclamation projects.

“I’m starting to wonder if this is becoming our legacy. What you dump in Schuylkill County will stay in Schuylkill County forever,” Dyszel said.

The plant is to be built between an existing plant in West Mahanoy Township and the State Correctional Institution at Mahanoy. It will burn 1.7 million tons of anthacite coal waste from northern Schuylkill County per year, creating a clear, zero-sulfur product called syngas to create diesel fuel, jet fuel and naphtha, according to the impact study.

The process, however, will also result in 250,000 tons of gasifier slag, 62,500 tons of coal ash, 7,500 tons of sludge and 4,060 tons of elemental sulfur per year. John W. Rich Jr., president of Gilberton-based Waste Management & Processors Inc., has said the $612 million plant will be environmentally benign.

The company is still researching ways to market the derivatives, which are not hazardous, according to the U.S. Department of Energy’s draft environmental impact statement for the Gilberton Coal-to-Clean Fuels and Power Project. Wastes and byproducts generated could be sold, used for mine reclamation, or taken to a commercial landfill for disposal, according to the November 2005 report.

Gilberton Mayor Mary Lou Hannon says she has faith in the company.

“They don’t believe in waste. If they can use it, they will try,” Hannon said. “It’s why they’re successful business people.”

Union representatives said last week that if the plant is approved, 1,000 construction workers will get jobs paying an average of $20 to $30 per hour. WMPI project manager Robert B. Hoppe said construction on the 75-acre site in Mahanoy Township will take three years.

“That’s phenomenal, especially in the county,” said Leo Gary Martin, president of the Schuylkill County Building & Construction Trades Council, which represents the 15 unions that would supply workers.

Coal combustion plants usually try to find uses for their byproducts in order to cut down on the cost of hauling and tipping fees, officials said.

“Some just can’t meet the requirements. But there’s those that do and they see a better and less expensive way to dispose of their material,” said Tom Rathbun, spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Slag can be used for asphalt roofing shingle granules, blasting grit or pipe bedding material, according to the Department of Energy’s report. The molten ash could also be used in reclamation projects, but that would require a permit from the state Department of Environmental Protection.

The ash and the sludge could be dumped on company land in the Mahanoy Creek valley if the state agrees, or into a commercial landfill, the report said. It may be possible to sell all of the sulfur produced for uses in agriculture and industry, officials said.

The U.S. Department of Energy is to release the final environmental impact study by the end of January or early February, Hoppe said.

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