Company officials fault DEP in plant's closing
TUNNELTON — Operators of an idled coal refuse treatment facility have denied that they closed the plant by choice and charged that a state-ordered remediation project at the site would be costly and unnecessary.
Representatives of Tunnelton Liquids Company protested at a public hearing conducted Tuesday evening by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection at the Tunnelton-Conemaugh Township fire station.
The TLC plant, which cleaned the runoff from a 100-foot pile of waste at the former Tunnelton Mine site and treated fluids from gas and oil well drilling operations, closed April 17, leaving a 1-acre pond of water and sludge sitting untreated.
Declaring that the pond is at risk of overflowing and spilling into the Conemaugh River, DEP has invoked provisions of the Hazardous Sites Cleanup Act, drafted a prompt interim response plan and called the public meeting to explain the plan and answer questions about the project.
The plan is in the early stages, and DEP is relying on ongoing test results to decide what steps will be taken.
Jerry Goodwald, the project manager, said DEP began planning the intervention when TLC failed to meet operating requirements set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
“The sludge … was allowed to be discharged into a borehole that went into the deep mine until April 17. At that time, the (EPA) ordered TLC to stop putting the sludge into the borehole … in a cease and desist order,” Goodwald said. “In preparation for that, DEP developed a plan designed to prevent an uncontrolled discharge of untreated raw water, gas drilling fluids and the associated sludge in the lagoon. It’s very close to the river and the department was in fear that there would be a discharge that would damage the ecosystem of the river.”
Goodwald said DEP’s plan also would address other possible contaminants such as abandoned transformers and 55-gallon drums of liquids — “any materials on the site that may or may not present an issue in the future.”
Under the HSCA, Goodwald said, DEP has brought contractors to the site to take water and sludge samples and to halt water from reaching the pond.
Test results would help DEP decide exactly how to handle the untreated water.
“We have a lot of the analysis, but we still need to work with companies that can treat this water or dispose of the sludges,” Goodwald said. “We don’t have that figured out at this point.”
Tunnelton Liquids President Al Lander and the site manager, Bruce Bufalini, told DEP representatives that TLC had unfairly been characterized as having “walked away” from the site in the DEP’s advance publicity for the hearing.
TLC had been under pressure from the EPA since 2011, Lander said, and the DEP failed to respond to the company’s efforts to satisfy all environmental regulators.
“We had three years in which I tried to get the department to sit down with EPA and I feel we could have worked it out. Why has the department refused to talk to EPA?” Lander said.
Goodwald, who specializes in hazardous site cleanup projects, said he could not reply on behalf of other officials at DEP.
“The site was referred to us not long before April 17,” he said. “The fear was the pond would overflow, so they referred it to us. What took place before that … I can’t answer that at this time.”
Lander said TLC had met all environmental standards for 15 years and had never been cited with Clean Water Act violations.
From the time the company began operation, primarily to treat runoff from the coal waste that remained after the deep mine Lander said, the plant also treated water from shallow well drilling.
Then after the development of Marcellus shale drilling, Lander said, TLC began accepting fluids, brine and frack water from drilling operations.
Lander said TLC found ways to combine and treat the leachate materials simultaneously with the drilling fluids and to purify them at lower costs than if they had been treated individually.
But supply of materials for treatment, and in turn the cash flow supporting Tunnelton Liquids operations, was curtailed in 2011 when DEP Secretary Michael Krance ordered a halt to the delivery of Marcellus well fluids to many treatment facilities in Pennsylvania, Bufalini said.
“In 2012, when we still had money, we submitted a plan to reclaim the site,” Bufalini said. “It was not acted on. It’s been dragging on for three years.”
Bufalini and Lander said the company’s own testing records would provide data being duplicated by new testing at the site.
Lander suggested that a cleanup project left in the hands of TLC could be completed for less than $50,000.
DEP representatives said the department would announce more details of the site cleanup project as the steps are determined.