A bipartisan delegation of lawmakers from Pennsylvania on Oct. 15 urged the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to consider creating a separate subcategory for power plants that convert coal refuse into energy in its final Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS). Though waste coal plants made an important environmental contribution by reducing coal refuse piles, the hydrochloric acid (HCl) standard in the MATS rule could push them out of business, they said.

The lawmakers were specifically concerned about Pennsylvania’s 14 waste coal plants, which use circulating fluidized bed (CFB) technology to convert refuse derived from both past and current coal mining activities into power. The U.S. has a total of 18 waste coal burning power plants, with 13 others that use it as a secondary fuel. Dozens more are proposed, mostly in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Kentucky.

“Operation of these plants results in the reclamation of idle or abandoned mine lands and strip mines as well as the abatement of acid mine drainage from these lands, all at no cost to taxpayers,” the lawmakers, led by U.S. Sens. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), said in a letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson.

Waste coal plants could so effectively meet the MATS mercury standard, emissions “are typically measured in ounces per year, some of the lowest levels in the country,” the letter said. The plants could also meet the particulate matter emission rate (used as a surrogate for the non-mercury HAP metals). “However, we have been informed that the EPA study conducted by Sargent & Lundy (used as a basis for the MATS rule) did not consider the effects of the MATS HCl standard on coal refuse fired CFB boilers. Consequently, the plant operators state that they cannot economically meet the MATS rule HCl emission limit,” the letter said.

Fuel switching was not an option for the waste plants, it added. Moreover, it was the “only current viable option” for removing coal refuse stockpiles from the environment that did not require taxpayer or government funding. “Should that option become unavailable, the entire responsibility for removal and clean-up would fall on taxpayers and the government, a task the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has testified would cost billions of dollars and take over 500 years to accomplish,” it said.

The Pennsylvania delegation included several U.S. House Representatives, including, Mark Critz (D-Pa.) Jason Altmire (D-Pa.), Tim Holden (D-Pa.) Glenn Thompson (R-Pa.), Lou Barletta (R-Pa.), Tom Marino (R-Pa.), Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) and Bill Shuster (R-Pa.).

The measure will likely receive some pushback from environmental groups, which contend that combustion of waste coal emits several other toxic emissions, and that it adds to the coal ash conundrum. “Burning waste coal doesn’t make the waste go away. If 100 tons of waste coal are burned, 85 tons will remain as waste coal ash,” claims Energy Justice Network.

One alternative suggested by the environmental group to remediate waste coal piles is to plant beach grass, which it said, thrives in waste coal piles and can establish enough plant cover to allow native plants to take root.

In a related development, on Nov. 16, the EPA proposed slightly revised MATS for new power plants that sets out slightly weakened emission limits for mercury, particulate matter (PM), acid gases, and certain individual metals for future coal- and oil-fired power plants.

Sources: POWERnews, Sen. Bob Casey, Energy Justice Network
This story originally appeared in POWERnews, Oct. 18 and has been updated.

—Sonal Patel, Senior Writer (@POWERmagazine)