Plant that turns waste into energy gives depressed town a charge. Little-known technology burns coal-mining residue efficiently

Kline Township's vitality rose and fell with the United States coal industry. Little evidence of the coal boom remains in this town of 1,800, except for millions of tons of coal-mine waste, piled in what is much of the town's landscape. But Kline Township's fortunes are changing. A major corporation sees dollar signs instead of eyesores, thanks to a new technology that turns waste into electricity.

The technology, called ``circulating fluidized bed combustion,'' or CFB, can generate electricity for the local utility, steam for local industry, and an opportunity to get rid of a lot of coal mining, urban, or wood waste products - all at a profit and virtually pollution-free.

The Reading Company, grandchild of the old Reading Railroad, broke ground on Tuesday for a CFB plant in Kline Township.

The site is in the middle of 110 acres of culm, the gray-black mine waste, owned by Reading and created as coal was mined for fuel in steam locomotives and the steel industry.

One area where CFB holds great promise is Pennsylvania, where more than 1 billion tons of culm are piled. The culm contains some coal, but the heating value is too low to justify its use economically. The CFB process, however, burns the culm so efficiently that what was once useless waste is now a valuable resource.

All over the state's coal region, towns share the problem of huge open-pit mine sites and mountains of culm, which result in a hilly topography. The pits can be filled in, but nothing will grow on culm.

With fewer than 100 plants, some only experimental, operating around the US, the benefits of CFB technology are only now being fully realized.

``During the course of this project we will gradually reclaim and reforest all this land, returning it to a natural state that it hasn't seen in about 110 years,'' says Thomas A.V. Cassel, president of the Northeastern Power Company (NEPCO), that will build and operate the CFB facility for Kline Township.

Not only will the unsightly culm piles be consumed, but the combustion process produces almost no sulfur dioxide or nitrogen dioxide emissions. Both of these air pollutants are regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency and are contributors to what some scientists describe as a global warming trend, or ``greenhouse'' effect.

The primary byproduct of CFB combustion is a fine ash, which can be used as a landfill or in building materials.

Saddled with useless property that resembles a gray moonscape, Reading's subsidiary NEPCO now plans to turn a profit from a former environmental liability.

``In terms of our balance sheet, this will be a very attractive project for the Reading Company,'' Mr. Cassel says.

Although he declined to discuss the financial details, the gross income from Pennsylvania Power & Light (PPL), the local utility that will purchase the electricity, is estimated near $26 million a year.

The plant will be a cogeneration facility, so called because it will not only generate electricity for sale to PPL, but also steam for sale to a six-acre hydroponics and greenhouse facility to be built nearby. Harold Woodward, president of Colonial Farms Hydroponics, plans to use his half of the greenhouse complex to expand his hydroponic lettuce business throughout the Middle Atlantic region. ``We will have about three acres of lettuce which will produce about 2 million heads a year,'' he says.

The rest of the greenhouse will be used by Bryfogle's Power Plants Inc. to grow more than 1 million ornamental plants like Easter lilies and poinsettias every year.

With buyers for the plant's electricity and steam taken care of, NEPCO is exploring the market for the ash residue. When tested, the culm ash was nontoxic, so NEPCO hopes to sell it to local concrete manufacturers, and use the rest to backfill old open-pit mining sites. The ash will then be covered with topsoil and reforested.

NEPCO officials estimate that it will take 20 years for the 50-megawatt plant, which will come on line in early 1989, to consume the 7 million tons of culm on the site. Once their own supply is exhausted, there are millions of tons piled nearby.

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