Dusty black irritant, blowing in the wind

Coal: Persistent neighbors press state regulators to control an airborne problem.

March 28, 2001|By Joel McCord | Joel McCord,SUN STAFF

SHAFT -- The tree trunks along the roadside just south of this Allegany County hamlet are black with coal dust. A layer of black dusts the window frames, lawn furniture and porch railings. Even the grass in Julio Calemine's front yard is tinged with black.

The dust, which can create problems for people with asthma, chronic bronchitis or other lung diseases, is drifting on the air from a nearby coal-processing tipple in apparent violation of the company's operating permits, he and his neighbors say.

Worse, federal and state regulators haven't done much about it, they complain.

"They all say they're monitoring it," says Bob James, who lives about a half-mile south of the tipple. "But if they drive by there, why can't they see these things? Why do I have to get this aggressive when we have state officials who ought to be dealing with this?"

James, who is leading the community protests, has compiled a thick file, including correspondence and e-mails with state and federal officials, permit copies and violation notices issued to United Energy Coal Inc., which operates the tipple.

He has videotapes of front-end loaders at the yard dumping coal into train cars as billows of dust are swept away on the wind. There's a white sock blackened with coal dust after he wiped it over a railing on his deck.

On a table in the basement he keeps a large jar of water as black as ink. It is the rinse water from the last time he cleaned the air filters on his household heating system.

"This is all I need for proof," James says. "I was born and raised down the road in Lonaconing. I played in coal dirt when I was a child, and this is coal dirt."

James first complained to the Allegany County Health Department in November 1999, then to the U.S. Department of the Interior's Office of Surface Mining in January 2000.

The Maryland Department of the Environment, prompted by the federal agency, inspected the coal tipple off Route 936 on Jan. 28 and Feb. 2 last year. The inspection turned up violations of the permit requirement to keep coal dust from escaping the yard. MDE then ordered the company to draft a new dust control plan.

United Energy filed the plan in February last year. James complained again to the Office of Surface Mining in January.

"I thought I'd give them a chance to get their plan working," James says. "But it's been a year, and nothing's changed."

MDE inspectors found violations on Jan. 18 this year, assessed a $5,000 fine and ordered the company to "reinstall the required dust control measures that have not been maintained according to the dust control plan" submitted last year.

Inspectors who returned to the yard Feb. 22 and Feb. 27 found no violations. Now, inspectors are at the yard "three and four times a week," says MDE spokesman Richard McIntyre.

But residents worry that the problem will return with drier weather.

Gerald Ramsburg, president of United Energy Coal, concedes that "there's a lot of dust getting out," but says he isn't sure "it's all coal dust."

"When it snows, they put cinders on the road, and it ends up looking the same," he says. "It's a combination."

Breathing dust from the soft coal mined in Western Maryland "normally doesn't do much to lung function," says Dr. Jeffrey Hasday, chief of pulmonary medicine and critical care at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

But it can exacerbate emphysema and chronic bronchitis and trigger asthma attacks, he says.

"When you figure 10 percent of the population has asthma and 10 percent has chronic bronchitis and there are many people with respiratory infections that have sensitive airways, that gets to be a fairly large part of the population."

Various coal companies have operated the tipple off Route 936 for decades, but none has processed as much coal -- 40,000 tons a month -- as United Energy.

Dump trucks and front-end loaders drop loads of coal into a chute and onto a conveyor belt to be ground into fine particles, then spewed out onto various piles according to grade.

The coal is loaded onto dump trucks and train cars, bound for power plants and other customers.

It's all the moving around that creates the dust, James complains. And the company's attempts to dampen it aren't effective, he says.

United Energy has installed a watering system to wet the road through the plant and hold down the dust. In a February 2000 letter to MDE inspectors, the company also promised to plant pine trees along the road to "reduce wind levels," install spray nozzles on the main dump feed bin, seed new topsoil around the bin and begin work by Aug. 1 on a system to wash truck tires.

On a recent damp day, trucks and other equipment raised little dust. A truck drove around spraying water.

"First I've seen that," says Calemine.

There was no truck-washing equipment in sight, but Ramsburg says that is to be completed "next week." He says the company has trouble only in the winter, when it isn't practical to spray the coal or the roads because the water would freeze, creating safety hazards.

But Brenda Atkinson, who lives across Cabin Run Road from Calemine, says there was plenty of trouble in the summer, too.

"In the winter it piles up in huge, wet masses, and in the summer it blows around," she says. "When my husband mows the lawn, he's covered with a cloud of black dust. You have to have something over your face or you'll be breathing that."

She and her husband keep their house closed up to prevent coal dust from seeping in, but "sooner or later, you have to open the door."

Calemine says his family has summer picnics inside the garage.

"We close the door and eat our barbecued chicken as fast as we can, then we open the door and go inside and have indigestion. Would you want to live like this?"

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