State OKs Building of Power Plant Burning Coal Wastes in Indiana Co.

More in this Section

Hotline, Fall 2001

by David Fowler, GASP Board Member

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has authorized construction of a new power plant at Seward in Indiana County designed to burn coal wastes (the lowest grade coal put aside when coal is originally mined) to generate electricity. Using a new technology, the facility would generate 520 megawatts of electricity and replace an existing conventional coal-burning plant with less than half that capacity. The DEP approved the plan on April 23, 2001.

To encourage the owner, Reliant Energy of Houston, Texas, to replace the existing plant by spending $800 million on the new one, the Commonwealth’s Economic Development Financing Authority is issuing $400 million in tax-exempt bonds to help build it.

The new technology being used is called fluidized bed combustion (FBC), in which ground up coal is mixed with lime or limestone and hot air is forced up through the mixture to extract energy from the coal. This process, according to the newsletter Power Plant Waste News*, produces less air pollution from sulfur, nitrogen, and particulates than conventional coal-burning plants.

Richard Benedict, Reliant Energy’s director of business development, estimated that the new Seward plant would emit about 20 percent less nitrogen oxides and about 30 percent less sulfur dioxide than the present plant, which would be closed.

However, because FBC produces fewer air emissions, much more solid waste results. And since the basic material being used, coal wastes, has much higher levels of mercury and other heavy metals than conventional coal, the resulting solid waste contains much greater concentrations of poisonous heavy metals than the original low-grade coal.1 Protection of the environment, especially drinking water, from leaching of these poisonous substances from resulting wastes is therefore essential.

According to communications manager Cindy Abram of Reliant Energy, the firm has contracted with its fuel supplier, Robindale Energy Services, to handle waste disposal. Robindale must, she said, apply for appropriate state permits for such disposal.

The Power Plant Waste News, however, urges that any approval for an FBC power plant should ensure that:

  • wastes be placed above ground water
  • wastes be placed in a liner of synthetic material, and that a collection system be used to keep any rainwater draining through the waste from reaching the ground water
  • monitoring of the waste disposal site for one to several decades to check on ground water quality
  • cleanup be required if contamination occurs
  • site closing requirements be imposed, including installation of a cap and diversions to lessen the amount of rainwater reaching the wastes.

1. Power Plant Waste News. Vol. 1, No. 2 (May 2001), published by Citizens Coal Council, Denver, CO.
2. Ibid.