A pit at the edge of Tamaquia, Pa., is at the center of a scientific and political debate over thousands of abandoned strip mines along the Appalachian landscape, turning streams and rivers into orange-tinted dead zones and scenic areas into eyesores.
The huge hole in the earth, called the Springdale Pit, is a barren place where industry once extracted thousands of tons of anthracite coal.
A Pottsville company, with help from state environmental officials, wants to fill the Springdale Pit with a potent mixture of coal ash, dust from cement and lime kilns, and river sediments dredged from several East Coast harbors and shipping lanes.
The goal is to prevent acid mine drainage the contaminated water that flows out of abandoned mines and pollutes waterways and restore the hillside closer to its original condition.
But neighbors of the Springdale Pit oppose the plan, fearing the mixture will leach into the groundwater, contaminate their wells, and make them sick. These opponents are backed by several environmental groups and one geologist who believes the state Department of Environmental Protection is about to make a big mistake.
The state agency favors the placement of coal ash and river sludge into abandoned mines as a "beneficial use" for these materials. DEP is considering an application by the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company for a permit that would allow the Springdale Pit to be filled with 500,000 tons of dredged material and 480,000 tons of coal ash each year.
If approval is granted, the implications for abandoned mine reclamation in Pennsylvania are significant. At DEP's request, LC&N's application asks for a general permit, rather than a site-specific permit, meaning that thousands of abandoned mines could eventually be targeted for the ash-sludge mixture.
Fighting Curran is Dante Picciano, a patent attorney who lives in a wooded area about four miles from the hole. The leader of a grassroots group called the Army for a Clean Environment, Picciano said he does not know whether coal ash and harbor mix is safe or unsafe. He just doesn't want to take any chances until scientists can answer the question definitively.
He cites LC&N's own application as evidence that it should be rejected. The document identifies a variety of toxic substances in the river sediments that would come from harbors in New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore, including PCBs, pesticides and heavy metals. And he explained that coal ash, also called fly ash because the particles are so small that they easily become airborne, contains cancer-causing dioxins.
DEP has allowed fly ash to be dumped into abandoned coal mines for decades and says it has detected no environmental degradation whatsoever. Officials say dioxin concentrations in coal ash are so small as to be negligible often lower than the concentrations one might find in an average soil sample.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency ruled three years ago that fly ash need not be regulated as a hazardous waste, although the agency is developing guidelines for how the material should be handled and disposed.
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