Smoldering Debate | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Smoldering Debate

Is a waste-coal facility the answer to Robinson Township's problems -- or will residents get burned?

What drove Cathy Lodge and her husband to move to a 25-acre farm was simple: They no longer wanted to see the air they'd been breathing.

The couple had started their lives together in Carrick, but after the birth of their fourth child, their dream of a life in the country led them to a farm in Robinson Township, Washington County.

They bought the property in 2000, camping at the farm on weekends while building a handsome two-story brick home there in their spare time. They schlepped back and forth to clear brush and feed the donkeys every day until 2003, when the family -- now numbering six children -- moved there for good.

"This was such a dream," Lodge says. "It's hard to swallow the thought of losing this."

But just a mile from Lodge's farm, a time bomb is ticking. On a 350-acre site along Beech Hollow Road, the biggest pile of waste coal east of the Mississippi has been festering since the 1920s. In the early days, coal from around the region was transported to the site, where it was processed and cleaned by the Pittsburgh Coal Company. The waste material was left behind, in a pile that grew huge over the years. It's refuse from a time before environmental standards stood in the way of simply dumping the unsavory leftovers of processing coal for electricity.

Back in March, Lodge heard about a community meeting where the public was invited to comment on a new use for the site: Robinson Power, LLC, was applying for a state permit to build a $400 million, 272-megawatt power plant, fueled by the waste-coal pile. Alarmed, Lodge attended the meeting, with her concerns and those of neighbors about pollution and industrialization of their homes. The state's Department of Environmental Protection heard the concerns, acknowledged each one, and briskly moved to the next. The permit was approved weeks later, on April 4.

The pollution Lodge's family tried to leave behind had caught up to them again. The residents of Robinson, she feared, were getting steamrolled by a corporate entity concerned only with the bottom line.

"I look at my baby and think, what did I move you to?" Lodge says. "I don't want my kids growing up in the shadow of a power plant."

That shadow, it turned out, was longer and darker than she thought at first glance. The permit had sailed through quickly enough to raise eyebrows at other government agencies -- and had been granted just one day before new, more stringent environmental standards were applied to the area. Had those standards been in place during the permitting process, the plant might have received more scrutiny. And the man behind the plant, Ray Bologna, turned out to be deeply connected to the state and local political establishment.

Lodge started asking questions, trying to find a way to stop the plant from going up. She formed a citizen's group, Robinson Residents Against the Power Plant, and appealed the permit before the state's Environmental Hearing Board, which has the power to reverse the DEP's permission. At the public meeting, Lodge was dismayed to learn that even other environmentalists backed the plant proposal ... even though the more she poked around, the dirtier the situation seemed.

Call it gob, call it boney, or call it slate pile. Call it what you will, but waste coal is a problem in coal states that's measured by the ton. It's waste from processing coal, and the residue from burning coal. Buring it is significantly less efficient than new coal, producing less than half the energy. If "good" coal burns at about 12,000 BTU, the coal at this pile will release around 5,000 BTU, according to Gary Merritt, a consultant with Robinson Power Co.

More than 37 million tons of the stuff sit on the site of the proposed plant in Robinson, known as the Beech Hollow Power Project. The pile is so big it's like a naturally occurring feature of the landscape. Merritt says that on a clear day, you can see the USX Tower from the top.

"Gob" stands for "garbage of bituminous" -- bituminous being a soft, black coal mined in this part of the country. The phrase is an apt description of the almost lunar landscape into which the pile has transformed this corner of Washington County. The pile looks like a huge gravel mountain. Tracks crossing its surface suggest that the pile's craggy roadways tempt quad-riders and mountain bikers to try their luck. All that grows on the skeletal earth are hardy birch trees accustomed to the acidity of the topsoil -- and parasitically adaptable Japanese knotweed.

For now, the pile is just sitting there, leaching 515,000 pounds of acid runoff into the Raccoon Creek watershed each year, according to the state's Department of Environmental Protection. Deeply red areas are evidence of occasional flare-ups where parts of the pile occasionally catch fire.

"It causes a spiritual depression," Vicky Michaels, vice president of the Raccoon Creek Watershed Association, says of the pile.

Robinson Power has been trying to lift that depression since 1984, when, under the name North Branch Energy, it sought and received a permit to burn the waste coal. Financial problems dogged that project, and it was ultimately abandoned. Robinson Power resurrected the plan in 2004.

"I believe that Robinson Power is trying to do a good thing for the environment," Michaels says. "It will provide a constructive reuse for all the coal waste that's littering the area."

The plant would convert the massive pile into electricity, burning the waste on-site. It would take between 13 and 14 years to burn up the whole pile, says Merritt. Consultants for the plant say that gob from within a 15-mile radius -- they estimate there's about 30 to 35 additional tons nearby -- would also be trucked in and burned up.

The consultants say that fly ash, an alkaline byproduct of coal burning, would be added to the ground beneath the piles. That would counteract the acidity imparted to the soil by years of contact with the gob, they say, and improve the water quality in Raccoon Creek.

Lisa Evans, counsel with the Boston-based Clean Air Task Force, says that's a simplistic view of fly ash. It's not simple arithmetic, she says: Acid dirt plus alkaline fly ash doesn't suddenly equal clean, virgin soil. The metals in the fly ash still have to go somewhere -- like the soil and water. And burning gob also produces between 10 and 14 percent more solid waste than new coal, says Evans.

Even so, the proposed plant would use the high-tech systems available to capture pollutants. Emission-control systems planned for the plant would capture between 95 and 99 percent of mercury.

DEP spokesperson Betsy Mallison points out that the permit will be among the first in the country with state-mandated mercury controls. The plant would release just over 3 pounds of mercury into the air each year.

Supporters also point to benefits beyond environmental cleanup. Construction would take three to four years, says Joe Pezze, of the environmental consulting firm Hillcrest Group. Pezze also teaches air-pollution classes at Duquesne University and California University of Pennsylvania. He's the author of the plant's air-quality permit approved by the DEP. He says construction will create 500 to 600 temporary jobs; running the plant will create another 60 permanent jobs.

"These aren't Wal-Mart jobs, either," says Merritt. He says they would be comparable in wages and benefits to manufacturing jobs.

Ultimately, backers say, the plant will also produce tax revenue. Currently, the site is designated as a Keystone Opportunity Zone, which means it's exempt from paying state and local taxes. The KOZ designation is an attempt to encourage developers to reclaim the site, but it expires in 2013, four years after the plant is slated to go online.

"When that KOZ expires, it'll be worth millions," says Robinson Township supervisor Mark Kramer. Kramer teaches in Mount Lebanon, and wishes kids in Robinson had the amenities he sees there. "It's all about the tax base," he says. "I'm looking out for the schools."

Kramer says he's not holding his breath for state money to come in and clean up the gob pile. If private enterprise in the form of Robinson Power will pick up the tab for cleanup -- and create jobs and energy in the bargain -- that's a good thing.

"I've lived within a mile of that thing most of my life. There's nothing good about it," he says. "This is the first viable solution I've heard for that pile, and I've lived here for 55 years."

The plant has the enthusiastic support of State Sen. J. Barry Stout, a Democrat representing Washington County, as well.

"It helps my constituency," he says. He calls it a "win/win," and occasionally "win/win/win" because it creates jobs and power and cleans up the environmental liability the gob pile creates.

At the March public hearing about the project, Stout said it would revitalize the area and keep young people from leaving, according to the meeting minutes.

"If we don't utilize that coal and burn it, it'll be there forever," he says.

In her farmhouse a mile away from the site, however, Cathy Lodge is already smoldering.

"This corner is being raped by a lot of politicians standing to make money," Lodge says. "It's disappointing."

She's worried that the plant is merely taking a water-pollution problem and turning it into an air-pollution problem. Mercury, she says, especially worries her. She has a 22-month-old and a 4-year-old, and the specter of autism -- which some have linked to mercury exposure -- is especially terrifying. While she's not literally downwind of the plant, she's close enough to worry for her children, and those of her neighbors.

Small particulate matter -- bits of ash and pollutants from the burning process that some have linked to asthma and other respiratory ailments -- troubles her as well. "There will be days it will just linger," she frets. "I don't want that health risk for my kids."

The plant, which will run 365 days a year, 24 hours a day, will inevitably bring noise pollution as well. Neighbors will have to contend with trucks bringing in limestone used in processing, and shipping gob from nearby piles. The Findlay Connector highway project is slated to cut through the area in 2006, providing access to the plant.

Besides the environmental consequences of the plant, Lodge and others see something sinister in how the permit moved through the approval process. At the March meeting, she says, she and others were expecting a back-and-forth dialogue, a chance to get comprehensive answers to questions about the plant, to have a conversation.

What they got, Lodge says, were pat answers and a sense that the approval was a fait accompli.

"It seemed like they had formed responses already," she says. "There was not a give-and-take."

Minutes from the meeting show that while DEP representatives answered queries from the public, those who commented didn't get a chance to ask follow-up questions. Spokesperson Mallison says public comment is always taken into consideration, however.

"I believe we did hear from some of those folks before action was taken," Mallison says.

Lodge and others weren't satisfied with their notification of the meeting, either: A small notice appeared in the Feb. 2, 3 and 4 editions of the Washington Observer-Reporter, the local daily newspaper, as well as the Feb. 5 and 19 editions of the PA Bulletin.

Though such notice is all a company is required to give, Robinson Township supervisor George Lucchino says, "People don't look in the legal ads to find out what's going on in the community." Of the three supervisors, he's the most unequivocally opposed to the plant. "They didn't notify the township. They have these public hearings, they don't invite the supervisors."

Lucchino says he heard about the meeting from fellow supervisor Mark Kramer, who mentioned at the meeting that even with "his strongest reading glasses" it was hard to find the notice.

"They think we must be stupid," Lucchino says of the forces behind the plant.

Pezze, the consultant for Robinson Power, says the supervisors were sent a certified letter informing them of the pending permit in May of 2004, prior to submitting the application to the DEP, as per DEP notification rules. He says the company encouraged the township to contact him with concerns.

"The township did nothing until they saw the ad in the newspaper," Pezze says.

Comments at the meeting were split nearly down the middle, the minutes show, and the permit went through. Lodge filed an appeal before the Environmental Hearing Board, a quasi-judicial board. Her appeal alleged that the public wasn't adequately informed of potential harm to nearby protected wilderness areas in violation of the Clean Air Act; that the plant wasn't using the best technology available to lower emissions; and that the permit had been approved just under the wire before new regulations were in place, which Lodge contends sets a bad precedent.

The timing of the permit is of special interest to Lodge's allies at the University of Pittsburgh's Environmental Law Clinic, which has been providing her with free legal representation.

"It seems to us the DEP entered this permit on a pretty fast track,'' says Tom Buchele, director of the law clinic and Lodge's attorney.

They might have had good reason to hurry. On April 5, 2005, Washington County was designated by the EPA as being in "non-attainment" for PM 2.5 -- particulate matter larger than 2.5 micrometers. That status means it's illegal to add to the overall concentration of particulate matter that size. While it's not visible -- 2.5 micrometers is about 1/30 the width of a human hair -- pollution that tiny can lodge deep within human lung tissue.

Combustion at the plant will release this miniscule matter. But Robinson Power's permit was approved one day before the change took effect. None of the computer analysis used in the permitting process took PM 2.5 emissions into account.

"The permit was issued a day before the standards were changed," says Lucchino. "That sends up a red flag to me."

Pezze says that EPA projections indicate that the area will no longer be non-attainment by 2009, the soonest the plant could realistically be online. He adds that, if that isn't the case, Robinson Power will do what it takes to be within regulations.

Still, Buchele isn't the only one to raise doubts about the project's timing. The Robinson Power site is close enough to impact three federally protected wilderness areas: Otter Creek and Dolly Sods Wilderness Areas in West Virginia and Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. In such cases, federal land managers are consulted in the permitting process, but a March letter from the National Park Service chides the DEP:

"Federal land managers should get all information relevant to permit applications within 30 days of receipt and at least 60 days prior to public hearing. DEP did not provide public notice, staff analysis or draft permit until Feb. 5" -- and the hearing was held in March.

The letter says this did not provide enough time for the Park Service to formulate an opinion.

Another March letter from Dr. James Kotcon, of West Virginia University, is more scathing, saying the "uncritical presentation of these results [the impact on the protected wild lands] is a fatal flaw in the process and ... potentially misleads the public."

If those concerns are upheld by the EHB, the permit may violate the Clean Air Act's provision for an informed public.

Pezze says that, if anything, the company is being blamed for its willingness to respond to requests for additional information. "Part of the appeal is that the land managers didn't have enough time," says Pezze. "They kept asking for additional work, and we gave it to them." He says this is why the information was delayed.

"I think there's interconnected things going on politically," says Candace Stockey, a certified legal intern with the law clinic who's doing the bulk of the work on the appeal. "It's interesting to look at."

At the heart of those connections is Ray Bologna Jr.

Bologna is the principal owner of Robinson Power. He owns the Pepsi Roadhouse, a Burgettstown concert venue. Bologna has been a prominent backer of state Sen. Stout: In 2004 alone, he contributed at least $4,250 to Stout's re-election campaign.

"We have had a longtime friendship and working relationship on behalf of northern Washington County for a number of years," Stout says.

Bologna has also given generously to numerous other state officials, including Gov. Ed Rendell.

Rendell and DEP secretary Kathleen McGinty came to the Beech Hollow site on Dec. 7 to sign the Alternative Energy Portfolio Standards Act. The Act requires 18 percent of all energy generated in Pennsylvania to come from wind, solar, and other renewable sources within the next 15 years. And at the March public meeting, Sen. Stout claimed a role in amending the act so that waste coal was designated as a renewable energy source. (The Clean Air Task Force's Evans says calling waste coal renewable is "a stretch.")

Still, Bologna won't speak to the press: His attorney, Maxine Woefling, who also won't go on the record, advised him against it in light of Lodge's pending appeal.

Indeed, Bologna's representatives appear to be tight-lipped about even seemingly routine disclosures. Both Woefling and Pezze claimed not to know whether their client is the same Ray Bologna who sits on the Pennsylvania Energy Development Board, a Rendell-appointed entity that disburses grants to creative, job-creating or pro-environmental energy concerns. (PEDA spokesperson Ana Gomez confirmed that they are one and the same; Bologna has not received any of PEDA's largesse.)

Pezze and Merritt say that they, along with Bologna, are environmentalists who just take a different, more pragmatic, approach to cleaning up the land. After Cathy Lodge's appeal was filed, they asked township supervisors to set up a meeting with her. The goal, they say, was to explain the plant's benefits, set Lodge's mind at ease and perhaps encourage her to withdraw her appeal. It was, after all, standing in the way of investors' committing to the project.

Lodge attended the meeting at the township building, lawyers in tow. Pezze says that at that point, Bologna hadn't even hired attorney Woefling.

"We just wanted to get together with them and give them information," Pezze says. "We just tried to be open. We went there without attorneys."

Lodge wanted to tape the meeting, arguing that anything the consultants had to say to her needed to be heard by the public. The consultants refused. Since the appeal had been filed and an official hearing would eventually take place, they now explain, there was no need to tape what they say was just meant to be an informal exchange. Lodge then cancelled the meeting and left.

"Gary [Merritt] and I, we should have known better," Pezze says. With legal proceedings were in the works, he says, perhaps they should have brought lawyers. "Maybe we're naïve."

Township supervisor Lucchino claims that after Lodge left, Pezze threatened to sue her for legal costs. "Joe Pezze's on my shitlist for threatening Cat Lodge with legal fees," Lucchino says. "I don't appreciate him coming into my township and threatening a resident."

Pezze categorically denies doing so, pointing out that he and Bologna were there without legal representation. Lodge, at any rate, hasn't been assessed any fees.

Besides official headaches, Lodge says she's frustrated with some of her neighbors. She says they put too much trust in the government.

"They believe the DEP will protect them. If it's through the DEP, it must be safe," she says.

Vicky Michaels, of the Raccoon Creek Watershed Association, counters that the status quo is at least as dangerous. "If people think they might be breathing something, they get frightened and hysterical, but not if they might be eating or drinking it," she says. But in the end, she contends, the air pollution created by burning the gob would do less damage than the pile is doing by just sitting there, leaking acid into nearby streams.

Still, Lodge suspects that old attitudes stand in her way.

"This area, like most of Pennsylvania, is coal people. They've lived with coal all their life," she says. "The gob that dots the hillside is part of their youth."

Lodge's appeal is currently in the discovery phase, and likely won't be heard until the end of the year at the earliest.

Environmental Hearing Board judges are nominated by Rendell to six-year terms, according to EHB secretary William Phillipy. He says it's nearly impossible to speculate on the chances for Lodge's appeal, but that it's common for private citizens to file appeals.

"We definitely have an appeals fight on our hands," says the law clinic's Buchele. As the appellant, Lodge is responsible for proving the wrongdoing. Buchele says it can be tough to get a DEP permit overturned, and that Bologna's lawyer, Maxine Woefling, is a very worthy opponent. She's also a former chairperson of the EHB.

"In terms of resources, we're outgunned," he says.