Mining Company Removing Big Waste Coal Pile in Tire Hill

Mining Company Removing Big Waste Coal Pile in Tire Hill

David Hurst, The Tribune-Democrat, Johnstown, Pa.
March 31, 2023·4 min read,

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Mar. 31—TIRE HILL, Pa. — For generations, a hill of waste coal has loomed over Tire Hill and polluted the nearby Stonycreek River.

Truckload by truckload, that is starting to change this spring.

A decade in-the-making plan to remove more than 6 million tons of the “bony pile” is underway in Conemaugh Township, Somerset County, Robindale Energy President Jim Panaro said. The project will involve removing coal over a span of eight to 10 years.

“This was a project we hoped to start 24 months ago, but with the economic downturn … impacting power plants, (the project) has been delayed,” Panaro said. “But we’re getting going now.”

The mound sits north of Tire Hill Road and west of Kring Street.

An access road for the work is already in place near the Conemaugh Township Volunteer Fire Department’s fire hall. The pile is just south of the Stonycreek River on the other side of Tire Hill. Crews will work their way toward Kring Street as the project progresses, Panaro said.

The waste coal is being excavated from under a foot of topsoil — and, in some areas, brush and locust trees.

Tire Hill resident Bill Black’s front porch faces the pile, the view of which is somewhat masked by trees and decades of wild growth. Black said he hasn’t paid much mind to it in his 30 years in the neighborhood, but he also recognizes the impact that coal waste remediation can have on rivers such as the Stonycreek, he said.

“I’m catching fish over there now. Twenty years ago, someone would’ve thought I was crazy for doing that on that river,” Black said, “or fishing for old boots.”

So anything that would improve the Stonycreek even more “would be great,” he added.

Industry scar

Robindale Energy didn’t build the pile. Just like the mammoth mound of waste coal, much of Tire Hill itself was built a century ago by Bird Coal Co. During the first half of the 1900s, the state didn’t have laws in place requiring companies to dispose of the rock-like waste coal that ended up dumped there.

The nearby Bird Mine itself was idled in the early 1980s.

At some point, the pile was topped with a foot of soil, Panaro said, but when hard rains roll in, the runoff still pollutes the Stonycreek River in some spots.

Efforts to address bigger sources of pollution — particularly acid mine drainage treatment systems at Oven Run further south — have improved the Stonycreek’s quality significantly. But there’s still room for more improvement, Somerset Conversation District Manager Len Lichvar and Conemaugh Valley Conservancy member Mike Cook said.

Cook noted that the coal pile isn’t far upstream from Greenhouse Park. He regularly tests the water to monitor pH levels.

“The river is much improved, but that pile is still a detriment to the main stem of the Stonycreek,” said Lichvar, whose group is not involved in the Tire Hill project, but has worked for decades on other clean-up efforts upstream. “Anything that can be done to eliminate that runoff is one more piece to the puzzle to bring the Stonycreek back.”

Conemaugh Township’s planning commission approved a land development plan for the project in the fall, said Steve Buncich, chairman of the township’s board of supervisors.

Minutes from the meeting show that RES Coal, a division of Robindale, committed to setting up a wash station to keep its trucks from scattering excess dust and dirt through the neighborhood when leaving the site. Truck scales were also added to ensure vehicles stay within proper weight limits. A 300-foot buffer zone was established to reduce noise and dust, minutes show.

Trucks will exit the access road and use Route 403 until a road repair project along the state highway puts detours in place. At that point, trucks would take Kring Street to Eisenhower Boulevard, plans show.

Daily work will be restricted to a 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. window so the sound of truck traffic doesn’t become a nightly distraction, the planning commission reported in October.

On the hill where coal will be removed, sediment ponds will be created to control runoff.

Panaro said the coal will be hauled to one or more of the region’s cogeneration plants, which can burn waste coal. He cited Seward Power Plant, Ebensburg Power Company and Colver Green Energy as possible buyers.

The coal removal operation will provide work for a small crew of RES Coal workers — three people this spring and likely six this summer once work ramps up.

State guidelines require the site to be reclaimed with a mix of high-alkaline lime, ash and soil and reseeded with native grass.

“It’s going to take time,” Panaro said, “but it’s going to be quite an improvement.”