Greening of Appalachia's Strip Mines
New plan would reclaim abandoned pits using sludge from coal-burning power plants
Standing on the edge of a gaping 22-acre landfill, Russ Tippett and Jack Cline watch a conveyor belt continuously dump gray sludge into a pile. In it, they see the future of southeastern Ohio - and of coal-burning regions around the world.Skip to next paragraph
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Their goal is to reinvent recycling - to take it from the simple sorting of bottles and cans to the large-scale salvaging of industrial waste for safe, beneficial uses.
Their plan: to use the sludge from coal-burning electric power plants to refurbish tens of thousands of acres in Appalachia left barren by abandoned mines. In the process, they hope to create a self-sustaining economy in one of the country's poorest regions.
"I'm convinced, in the core of my soul, we have the ability to fix this environment and create jobs," says Mr. Tippett, dean of the School of Natural Resources and Ecological Sciences at Hocking College in Nelsonville, Ohio.
The goals are ambitious. Ironically, one of the biggest impediments may be the environmental community. Opposed in principle to the burning of fossil fuels, it has also questioned the safety of recycling coal-combustion byproducts back into the earth.
"I'd be skeptical about any such reclamation project unless extremely careful testing is done," says Matthew Waldo of the Hoosier Environmental Council (HEC), a citizens environmental group in neighboring Indiana.
At the core of the Ohioans' vision - and the environmentalists' concern - is scrubber sludge, a kind of "poor man's concrete." The gray glop is formally known as flue gas desulfurization byproduct (FGD). It's left over after the coal plants' smokestack emissions are stripped of sulfur and other air pollutants. The process is called scrubbing, and it produces FGD - lots of it.
Each 3 tons of high-sulfur coal burned produces almost 1 ton of FGD. Just three of Ohio's high-sulfur coal-burning electric power plants spit out more than 5 million tons of FGD a year.
"Currently, we're just throwing it away in the landfill," says Mr. Cline, professor emeritus at Ohio State University. "We want to put it to work fixing the 75,000 acres of abandoned mine land here in the state of Ohio."
Seven years ago, when Cline realized they were "burying gold," he and his colleagues began experimenting with FGD. They checked its chemical and structural properties, tested it for safety, and devised ways it could be used to revive southeastern Ohio's struggling economy.
WHAT they discovered surprised even them. "It's absolutely safe for human use," says Cline. "We've done all sorts of chemical analysis of it."
FGD shares many characteristics of concrete. It's basically lime and fly ash. Add a little more lime to it, and it hardens just like concrete. The only differences: It's not as strong, and the FGD is free. The power companies would rather give it away than pay to bury it in a landfill.
But some environmentalists in the Ohio Valley are wary. They worry the FGD may contain concentrations of heavy metals.