Coal firms push for 2 power plants

March 13, 1995|By Greg Tasker | Greg Tasker,Western Maryland Bureau of The Sun

GRANTSVILLE -- A group representing most of Western Maryland's coal companies is proposing that two power plants be built in Garrett County to generate electricity for other Marylanders.

The plants would burn locally produced coal, possibly saving Maryland's traditional coal-mining industry. The plants' advocates portray the industry as jeopardized largely because of federal clean-air regulations.

Together, the two plants would cost an estimated $650 million.

In addition to creating electricity for more densely populated sections of the state, coal officials said the plants would create jobs and spur economic development, as well as assist an environmental cleanup along the Potomac River's north branch and the Casselman River.

"It's just a win-win-win situation for the coal industry, for economic development in the county and the state and for the environment," said Dave Thomas, vice president of Mettiki Coal Co. in Garrett County, the state's largest coal producer.

Changes in federal Clean Air Act regulations are shrinking the market for Maryland coal. The coal has a medium-to-high sulfur content, which is environmentally dangerous. To comply, utilities are switching to low-sulfur coal or installing expensive "scrubbers" to remove sulfur from smokestack emissions.

"The only places we will be able to sell our coal are those plants with scrubbers or another method of sulfur removal," said Gerald Duckett, technical services manager for Buffalo Coal Co., which strip-mines coal in Western Maryland. "We're being cut out of the market."

Maryland's underground and strip mines in Garrett and Allegany counties produce about 3.5 million tons of coal each year. But more stringent clean-air regulations will cut coal production by 1 million to 1.5 million tons over the next five to 10 years, Mr. Duckett said.

Maryland companies also are facing stiffer competition to supply coal to a Virginia Electric Power Co. plant in Mount Storm, W.Va., which is cutting production because of higher operating costs. Maryland has supplied that plant with about 1 million tons of coal a year.

"What we're really looking at is that by 2005, we may see an extinct coal industry in Western Maryland," said Tom Jones, director of Garrett County's Economic Development Department. "But if we can build some smaller power plants in the coal fields . . . we have a possibility of at least maintaining a coal industry."

About 350 miners work Maryland's coal fields today.

Proposed are a $250 million, 150-megawatt plant at Kempton in southwestern Garrett County and a $350 million, 300-megawatt plant near Interstate 68 and Grantsville in the northern part of the county. Electricity generated from those plants would be sold to utilities, coal officials said.

The Kempton plant would burn about 125,000 tons of coal and about 450,000 tons of coal refuse -- or gob, unsightly black piles of which can be found at mines in Garrett and Allegany counties -- a year. The other plant would burn about 1.25 million tons of coal.

Ash from both power plants would be used to fill abandoned mines, advocates of the new plants say. Ash from the Kempton '' plant, for example, would be used to fill the abandoned Kempton mine, the largest source of acid mine drainage into the Potomac River's north branch.

"Kempton is a horrendous environmental problem," Mr. Duckett said. "We can use this ash to fill up these voids in the mines and clean up the biggest source of pollution on the Potomac River."

"The proposals are just now being made, and that's all they are," Mr. Thomas said. "The next step is to involve the power industry in a big way. Without the power plants, the industry is going to continue to decline unless we can get [the utility companies] to install scrubbers."

State coal officials met recently with utility company representatives, state officials and Western Maryland lawmakers in Annapolis to discuss the projects.

"The state of Maryland is interested in doing everything it can to help the state's coal industry," said Donald Milsten, director of the Maryland Energy Administration. "There's a lot to be gained. Western Maryland coal companies have a tremendous impact on the local economy. We're going to work with them and see what we can do."

Among the things that need to be worked out are: finding financial backers and a utility willing to purchase the electricity, and getting permission to use a power line that runs through Garrett County and connects with systems that serve the rest of Maryland, Mr. Duckett said.

"There are a lot of unanswered questions, a lot of fact-finding to determine the feasibility of the project," said Cyndi Shoop, a spokeswoman for Potomac Edison Co., which serves Western Maryland and owns the power line that runs through Garrett and Allegany counties. "We will, of course, be watching this project."

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