Source: (1/11/2006)
Source: (1/10/2006)

Coal-to-oil plan draws fire
01/10/2006 & 01/11/2006

SHENANDOAH It was a night of cheers and jeers for the $612 million coal gasification liquefaction plant proposed for the Morea area of Mahanoy Township.

Nearly 300 people attended the first of two public hearings on the U.S. Department of Energy's "Environmental Impact Statement for the Gilberton Coal-to-Clean Fuels and Power Project" held in the Shenandoah Valley High School auditorium.

Members of the audience came not only with questions about the study, but also with passionate words against the so-called coal-to-oil project championed by John W. Rich Jr., president of Reading Anthracite Co., Pottsville, and Waste Management and Processors Inc. People were asked to step up and were given five minutes to make comments, which were taken down by a court reporter for review by the department, said Janice L. Bell, National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) document manager, Pittsburgh, who conducted the hearing.

Some people were critical of the report.

"I can't understand why there's so many comments in this impact statement, such as 'maybe,' 'if,' 'likely, 'could be' and 'possibly,'" said Sharon R. Chiao, Mahanoy Township supervisors chairwoman, as she stood at the podium with microphone in hand. "Give us some definites. Tell us what's going to happen to us."

Chiao said she read through the textbook-size document, which was released to the public for review in November.

"It says that sulfur dioxide will pose no problems," she said. "But toward the back of the impact statement it says that the plant averages about three complaints per month about the rotten-egg odor from hydrogen sulfate, which occurs at the plant's lowest emission. So even at its lowest emission, there will be an odor."

Former Gilberton Mayor Edward R. Pautienus said he brought 40 pages of comments and questions, but doubted he'd get through them all in five minutes.

"If these plants are so great, then I suggest that the companies involved put up a security bond of 10 percent of the cost of the project," Pautienus said. "And if they do any damage to any individuals or the environment, you can go to the security bond and collect your money."

"We have to keep the comments to the environmental impact study," Bell stressed. "That's what's critical to the Department of Energy."

Gary Martin, president of the Schuylkill County Building and Construction Trades Council, Pottsville, came to the study's defense.

"I'm not a scientist and cannot claim to be an expert on any sort of pollutions or emissions or water contamination," Martin said. "But I think the pros and cons of those matters have been studied pretty thoroughly over the past 10 years by quite a few experts, not only in the private arena (but also) by state and federal agencies. I don't think this project would have ever gotten this far if it posed much of an environmental threat."

Listening in the crowd were other coal-to-oil supporters, including David J. Rumbel, and his wife, Diane M., who described her husband as a union man. If the plant is built, it might provide him with work close to home, she said.

"I wish my son were here," said the man behind the project, John W. Rich Jr. His son is John W. Rich III, 13.

"I think this would be a good opportunity for the younger generation to hear what the people feel about these things and what it takes to make things happen," he said.

Rich's son will have another chance tonight, when the second hearing is held at 7 in the Pottsville Area School District's D.H.H. Lengel Middle School auditorium.

Faces in the crowd Monday included West Mahanoy Township supervisors Chairman Joseph M. Sweeney, Timothy F. Twardzik of the Schuylkill Economic Development Corp. (SEDCO) and Mahanoy Creek Watershed Association President Roseann M. Weinrich.

"I'm here as a taxpaying resident of the area," Weinrich said. "And I just want to find out what's going on."

The hearing also drew representatives of special-interest groups, including Michael Ewall of, based in Philadelphia. He drew the crowd's attention to several sections of the report he found curious.

"Without DOE participation, the proposed project would be canceled due to insufficient funding and may not be demonstrated elsewhere," he said, quoting from the report.

"I wish that were true," Ewall continued. "Unfortunately, there are several projects like this around the country, including Montana and a few other places, where they are being proposed and would not involve $612 million of state and federal subsidies of various sorts. And every penny of this will be subsidized in one form or another."

Rich has been working for years to build this coal gasification plant. Using a gasifier, it will convert the coal waste that accents northern Schuylkill County into syngas, a clear, zero-sulfer liquid that will be marketed for the production of jet fuel.

Rich said Monday he hopes to break ground this spring.

People wishing to review the DOE study before tonight's hearing can read it at the Pottsville Free Public Library, Mahanoy City Area Library and Frackville Free Public Library.

Bell said she will accept comments on the draft up until Wednesday, Feb. 8. Hard copies can be obtained by contacting her at (412) 386-4512.

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