A group of environmental advocates recently sent a letter to the Pa. Department of Environmental Protection protesting the state's decision to resume dumping of coal combustion waste into Lehigh Coal & Navigation's massive Springdale pit, part of an old mining operation near the anthracite region towns of Tamaqua, Coaldale and Summit Hill. The waste would come from Dynegy's Danskammer Station in Newburgh, N.Y., which burns coal imported from South America
The Springdale pit lies on the border of Schuylkill and Carbon counties in the eastern part of the state. This area was mined into the 1990s by Lehigh Coal & Navigation Co., leaving behind enormous black holes in the hillsides that occasionally swallow locals
who wander too near. Federal authorities recently confirmed
a cluster of a rare blood cancer in the area, which researchers suspect is probably environmental in original. This part of the state is heavily polluted from centuries of mining, coal burning, waste dumping, and emissions from various industrial facilities.With help from the state's mineland reclamation program
, LC&N has been filling the massive Springdale Pit with on-site spoil as well as coal ash from several power stations. A now-defunct local citizens' group called the Army for a Clean Environment successfully fought plans
to add Delaware River dredge to the mix.
On first consideration, it might seem to make sense to fill mine pits with the stuff left left over after burning coal. However, burning coal frees up toxins locked inside: aluminum, arsenic, lead, radiation
. When rainwater and snowmelt runs through the ash, impurities leach out -- and there is no liner to keep them from seeping into the earth. In the latest issue of Rachel's Democracy & Health News, environmental reporter Peter Montague likens
the leaching of coal combustion waste to brewing coffee:
If you pour water over a few coffee beans, you don't extract much coffee. The result looks pretty much like a cup of hot water. The good stuff remains locked up in the beans. But if you grind up the beans into a finely divided powder, then pour water over them, presto! You get a rich, thick cup of coffee. What has happened is that the surface area of the coffee beans has been enormously increased by grinding them up -- thus exposing a much larger surface to the water, allow the good stuff to be leached out into your cup.
Coal is the same. Coal underground is like coffee beans. Water filtering through a solid seam of coal does not extract much of those toxic metals. But once you mine, crush and burn the coal, turning it into a finely divided ash (like grinding up the beans, vastly increasing the surface area that can come into contact with water), then filter rainwater through it year after year after year -- presto! You get a rich, thick, toxic waste capable of poisoning your underground water supply.
There's evidence this poisoning-via-leaching is already occurring across the state: A 2007 Clean Air Task Force study
of coal combustion waste dumping that found widespread contamination of surface and groundwater at Pa. minefill sites, with degraded water quality at 10 of the 15 locations examined. (The Springdale Pit was not among those studied.) The contaminants found included lead, cadmium, arsenic, and chromium -- some at levels exceeding water quality standards many times over. Groundwater contamination is a serious concern near the Springdale Pit, since residents of the rural areas immediately downstream of the towns draw their water from wells.
Here's the full text of the letter to DEP as posted at Dante7.com
, the website of local environmental health advocate Dante Picciano:
Mr. John Hanger, Acting Secretary
Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PA DEP)
Rachel Carson Office Building, 16th Floor
P.O. Box 2063
Harrisburg, PA 17105-2063
Re: Coal Combustion Waste Moratorium
Dear Mr. Hanger:
On October 9, 2008, you afforded us the opportunity to meet with you to discuss our concerns about the PA DEP's coal combustion waste program. At that time, we asked you, among other things, to consider a statewide moratorium on new coal combustion waste mine filling/mine reclamation projects until the safeguards proposed by the National Research Council, the Environmental Integrity Project and other experts have been adopted into final Technical Guidance now pending before the Department. We also asked you to stop the out-of state importation of coal combustion waste.
We stated that we sincerely hoped that the leadership changes at the PA DEP would mean a new direction for citizen and environmental participation. We were under the impression that you wanted us to meet with the department's mining staff once more to address our requests for safeguards and the factual basis for adopting them and that you would conduct an internal review and that you would provide us with your decision and the basis thereof.
Thus, we were very disappointed to learn that the Pottsville Mining Office of the PA DEP has subsequently renewed a permit reauthorizing the placement of large volumes of coal combustion waste at the Springdale Pit of the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company (Surface Mining Permit No. 54733020). The Pit is located within the boroughs of Summit Hill, Coaldale and Tamaqua.
We were further disappointed to learn that the coal combustion waste will be imported from Dynegy Northeast Generation - Danskammer Station in New York.
We were particularly disappointed in your decision since PennFuture was and is monitoring the notorious 309 discharge from the Springdale Pit. The repeated violations of the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System permit have been well documented by PennFuture during your tenure as president and CEO of the organization.
At some point, we are hoping that there will be at least a modicum of attention paid to the public health and the environment by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.
Thus, we would respectfully request that you reconsider the decision to reauthorize the placement of coal combustion waste at the Springdale Pit as well as the need to adopt and enforce substantive safeguards for the PA DEP's placement of coal combustion waste in mines before any further decisions to place this waste without these safeguards becomes binding on the department.
Lisa Graves Marcucci
Jefferson Hills, PA
Mountain Watershed Association
Robert Gadinski, P.G.
Dante Picciano, Ph.D., J.D.
Labels: army for a clean environment, carbon county, coal burning, coal combustion waste, coal mining, DEP, polycythemia vera, public health, radiation, schuylkill county