Putting power plant wastes to use Pollution: Combustion wastes might be used to rid mines of acid drainage that kills all aquatic life in thousands of miles of streams nationwide.

On the Bay

November 15, 1996|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

A RIVER is dammed to form a reservoir, and downstream beaches and marshes shrivel as the dam blockades their supplies of silt.

Wastes removed from industrial discharges to clean a waterway are buried, polluting underground water supplies.

The history of our modern environmental crisis is rife with unintended consequences of projects and replete with examples simply moving pollution around instead of eliminating it.

So it is welcome to see even a small first step that runs counter to both these trends, such as the collaboration between Maryland's Department of Natural Resources and Western Maryland coal companies on a ridge in Garrett County.

The Frazee mine demonstration project, near Friendsville, is an unforeseen spinoff of tougher federal clean air regulations governing emissions from coal-fired power plants.

The project might show how to use millions of tons of power plant combustion wastes, which are now put in landfills, to eliminate the acid drainage that spurts from abandoned coal mines across the United States, killing all aquatic life in (x thousands of miles of rivers and streams.

"It's a real paradox," said Jerry Duckett, supervisor of technical services for Buffalo Coal, a West Virginia company with major, long-standing mining interests throughout Western Maryland.

The Clean Air Act's increasing emphasis on cutting sulfur emissions from power plants (to control acid rain and protect human health) hits the coal industry hard, Duckett explained.

At the same time, he said, it has given rise to a most useful new byproduct.

Huge quantities of alkaline wastes are being produced by the stack scrubbers, fluidized bed combustion and other technologies that have been coming into use to reduce sulfur emissions. The wastes can be mixed with water to form a weak cement.

Laboratory studies at Southern Illinois University have demonstrated that a slurry, or grout, made from the combustion wastes and recaptured pollutants could be pumped underground, filling and permanently sealing the shafts and crevices of abandoned coal mines.

It is there that ground water collects and turns acidic from contact with the old coal seams, finally bursting to the surface to contaminate streams and rivers.

One mine alone, the old Kempton complex on the Maryland-West Virginia border, pours about 6 million gallons a day of highly acidic water into the Potomac.

Lime dosing machines placed downstream from the mine have been successful in raising the pH, or acid-alkaline balance, of the river to levels required by fish, but a permanent solution had seemed out of the question.

The old Frazee mine, consisting of a few acres of abandoned tunnels 100 feet beneath a 10-acre field, was a good size for a pilot project, DNR officials said.

So far west in Maryland that the mine drains to the Gulf of Mexico, not the Chesapeake, it was a mom and pop operation, the land above it farmed by a family during the summer, the coal below dug during the winter.

The just-completed pilot project "cemented" about 5,000 cubic yards of old mine shafts there. A typical cement mixer truck holds about 10 cubic yards.

The "ultimate project" for Maryland would be to seal off the Kempton mine, said Peter Dunbar, director of DNR's Power Plant Research Program, which supervised the Frazee mine project.

That will not happen until many more questions are resolved through smaller projects, he said, but if it were done, it could take all the fly ash and other combustion wastes produced by Maryland power plants for decades, "and we'd probably have to look for materials beyond Maryland."

The impact of putting power plant wastes into landfills is considerable. A large plant, over its lifetime, will cover with its ash disposal hundreds of acres to heights of 40 to more than 200 feet. The runoff must be collected and treated, essentially forever.

The economics of using such wastes to cure acid mine drainage will be a major area of study, Dunbar said.

The Frazee project cost about $150,000, not counting substantial donations of equipment and people by the coal industry or DNR's considerable work on it.

"But with power plants in Florida paying to ship [wastes] all the way to West Virginia for landfilling, you have to think there are real costs associated with current disposal methods," Dunbar said.

Buffalo Coal's Duckett thinks there might be a payoff down the road for his industry "if economies of scale can get the grouting process down to where it can compete with landfilling. And if it's even close, given the potential to clean up acid drainage, it might be a good place for government incentives."

Dunbar says Maryland has talked to the Department of Defense about financial help with mines such as Kempton, which were a major part of the nation's defense effort during World War I and World War II. "The impacts of that acid drainage is one of the last vestiges of the wars," he said.

Glen Besa, the Sierra Club's representative in Western Maryland, said, "Probably we need to do something like this [cementing] with existing mine problems."

But Besa also said he was concerned that the project not be used "as a way to justify a big expansion of coal production in areas like this."

The slurry from power plant wastes contains pollutants such as metals, and DNR's Dunbar said that "if any runoff results from the underground grouting, it won't meet drinking water standards."

But it would fall "far short" of violating toxicity standards for aquatic life and, "at its worst, be a whole lot better than [the acid] coming out now," he said.

Pub Date: 11/15/96

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