Water Treatment Plant in Cross Hairs

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
20 May 2011
By Timothy Puko

Tunnelton Liquids Co. joined most of the treat-and-release wastewater plants in Western Pennsylvania on Thursday when it stopped taking Marcellus shale wastewater at the request of state regulators.

But without that business, it's probably going to close today. And when it does, 30 million gallons of untreated mine drainage could start pouring into the Conemaugh River every year, company officials said.

"There's just no way to pay our bills," said Al Lander, president of the plant on the river's north bank in Conemaugh in Indiana County. "If you start dumping all that (drainage) into the river, it's going to have a dramatic impact. It's going to coat the river with iron (and) manganese. It will significantly affect the aquatic life at the bottom of the river."

Lander is fighting state and federal officials who disagree with him. They say they're acting to protect drinking water sources by keeping shale drilling wastewater out of the rivers and by stopping Tunnelton from dumping the metal sludge it cleans from the water.

Tunnelton has become a flashpoint in two of the biggest environmental conflicts in the state. It's a remnant of Pennsylvania's coal era, but its closing could come because of concerns that the growing gas drilling industry might repeat the coal industry's environmental mistakes.

The state Department of Environmental Protection helped create Tunnelton to clean an abandoned mine, but it's being squeezed out as the federal Environmental Protection Agency pushes the DEP to increase oversight of drillers.

It isn't clear whether Lander is right -- that the mine drainage will be a dramatic pollutant -- or whether regulators are right when they say Marcellus waste could be worse, said Bob Kossak, manager at the Kiski Valley Water Pollution Control Authority, downstream in Westmoreland County.

"The whole problem is there isn't enough science on the Marcellus water yet," Kossak said. "And that's why all this controversy is going. Usually, all regulations are based on science. And they don't have it."

Tunnelton's final chapter may have begun last month when the DEP asked drillers to stop taking millions of gallons of wastewater to 16 treat-and-release wastewater plants. State officials cited studies showing elevated bromide levels near plants that accepted such water; bromide can form into carcinogens in drinking water.

Officials at 10 of those plants, including Kiski Valley, Clairton and New Castle, said they never took shale wastewater or would stop by yesterday's deadline. The Johnstown Redevelopment Authority plans to stop within a few weeks. Only officials at Hart Resource Technologies Inc. said they would continue, though in reduced amounts; and the other plant operators either couldn't be reached by the Tribune-Review or didn't respond.

However, about 75 percent of Tunnelton's business is Marcellus water. The profits from treating that water are used to buy lime and purify runoff from the Tunnelton Mining Co.'s abandoned mine -- the reason the DEP permitted the plant in 1997, company officials said. And there's no other business to keep the company open, they added.

Lander said he spoke with DEP Southwest Regional Director George Jugovic Jr. on Wednesday but couldn't get the agency to withdraw its request.

"We're not going to allow (mine drainage) to flow untreated into the river," DEP spokeswoman Katy Gresh said.

The state has money to hire a temporary operator and make upgrades to the system there, Gresh said.

Company officials had said there was $1 million in trust from the mine's original bond, but Gresh didn't say how much is available now. The state is researching other options, she said.

Ultimately, it will be the state's responsibility to treat the mine drainage if Tunnelton closes, said Jon Capacasa, director of the water protection division for the EPA's mid-Atlantic region.

"(Mine drainage) was created ... by using improper techniques for the (coal) extraction in the first place," Capacasa said. "We certainly don't want to repeat that legacy pollution in other areas, certainly including Marcellus shale development. ... If we don't use proper techniques for extracting energy sources, we're going to have environmental problems to deal with into perpetuity."

Timothy Puko can be reached at tpuko@tribweb.com or 412-320-7991.