Md. coal mining's toxic legacy

As cleanup funds dry up, officials mull what to do with mountains of waste

December 08, 2006|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,Sun reporter

MIDLOTHIAN -- In the woods at the fringe of this Western Maryland town, a mountain of waste 50 feet high is slouching into a creek that's tinted an eerie orange.

The "gob pile" is refuse from a long-abandoned coal mine. And the stream into which it's eroding, Winebrenner Run, is devoid of life - one of the state's worst cases of sulfuric acid pollution from mines.

At least 40 of these potentially toxic heaps rise in the forested mountains of Allegany and Garrett counties like tombstones for the state's declining coal industry. The Maryland Department of the Environment would like to get rid of the piles because they often ooze acid and can spontaneously ignite.

But the funding to clean up this and other pollution left by the state's roughly 800 abandoned mines is scheduled to end next year as a federal tax on coal companies expires.

Even if money is found, there's a dispute over how to dispose of the waste heaps. Maryland is examining Pennsylvania's decision to burn coal waste to generate electricity, but some environmentalists say that's a bad idea because it creates mercury air pollution and leaves ash with heavy metals.

Mike Garner, chief of abandoned mine land programs for the Department of the Environment, stood in the gurgling waters of Winebrenner Run and looked up at the looming mass of gunk.

"We are worried about a big slug of gob eroding down and blocking that stream, flooding the homes nearby," Garner said, his shoes muddy with acidic orange silt. "We'd like to remove this pile and restore this stream."

The term gob stands for "garbage of bituminous." It is shorthand for the rocks that miners threw away near mine shafts as they dug toward veins of coal, said Daniel L. Welsch, an assistant professor at Frostburg State University who is studying the piles.

The tar-colored waste heaps - also called "bone piles" - are typically made up of shale, iron pyrite and other minerals mixed with coal. When iron pyrite (called fool's gold) is exposed to water and oxygen, it can create sulfuric acid, which sometimes leaks from the piles. More often, Welsch said, acid wells up from forgotten mine shafts near the heaps, turning streams into lifeless ditches.

The orange color is from iron that precipitates out of the water when acid is added, Welsch said. More than 350 miles of streams in Western Maryland are tainted by this pollution.

The worst problems are from scores of old mines that closed before 1977. After that, federal law required coal companies to clean up their waste and replant their sites with grass.

About 30 smaller mines are still active in Maryland. But the state's largest, run by Mettiki Coal LLC in Garrett County, closed in October, and the industry is shrinking here - even as it is growing nationally - because the most accessible coal veins in the state have been tapped out. What's left in Maryland is the industry's legacy.

"Gob piles are ugly - they release acid and iron, aluminum and manganese," said Tom Rathbun, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. "And when the water comes out on the downstream edge, it's not quite battery acid, but nothing lives downstream."

Pennsylvania estimates that it has more than 250 million tons of waste coal in thousands of piles scattered across the state. It has begun burning the gob in power plants designed to handle the impurities, Rathbun said.

But some critics say that burning gob creates worse problems for the environment because it is an extra-dirty fuel that can spew mercury into the air.

"The amount of mercury in waste coal is far higher than in conventional coal, and you have to burn more of it to get the same amount of energy," said Mike Ewall, director of the Energy Justice Network, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit group. "It would be far better not to be burning this stuff, releasing all that toxic waste into the air and creating the waste ash for landfills."

Craig Hartsock, president of the nonprofit Maryland Resource Conservation and Development Council, said he'd like the gob piles in Western Maryland to be marketed as fuel for power plants.

"It would provide a useful source of fuel for electricity and clean up an environmental blight on the landscape at the same time," Hartsock said. "It would be a win-win situation."

He's working with Welsch and other researchers at Frostburg State to try to find all of the state's forgotten gob piles, by poring over old maps and tramping through woods.

John E. Carey, the director of Maryland's Bureau of Mines, said his agency has cleaned up 15 gob piles in the past two decades, including some of the largest, in Kempton, Eckhart, Shallmar and Kitzmiller. Workers flatten the piles with bulldozers, then cover the refuse with soil and grass. By burying the gob, the state reduces erosion into streams, Carey said.

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