Politics & Media
Jul 05, 2024, 06:24AM

Pennsylvania: Raking It In Over Old Coal?

The value of waste coal is more than you'd think.

Unnamed.jpg?ixlib=rails 2.1

Firepoint Energy CEO Bill Smith collecting at a waste coal site in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania

It’s a rare sight to see visitors casually trudging through the abandoned waste coal piles of Pennsylvania, shifting their bodies slightly to maintain balance as they carefully set their feet upon the shifting mounds of rocky, dark residue. Yet, that’s what Bill Smith has done for the last two months, surveying several millions of tons of rocky debris across multiple locations with a satisfied smile upon his countenance.

“It’s like looking at an oil well that’s hiding in plain sight,” insists Smith. “Except you have to spend millions of dollars just to get the equipment to prospect for oil. In this case, I don’t have to do any prospecting. All I have to do is collect a sample from a waste coal site and drive it over to a lab. That tells me everything I need to know about the monetary worth of these piles.”

What do the lab results tell Smith about the discarded rocks that lie abandoned all across the Pennsylvania countryside? According to him, the numerical readout of the lab report tells Smith several of the waste coal piles that darken the historical coal mining regions are worth several billion dollars.

“Not every pile of waste coal is the same, because the content of the waste coal varies based on the site it was originally mined from,” says Smith. “Still, you would be hard pressed to find a waste coal pile that doesn’t have hundreds of millions of dollars of resources within it… especially if the pile weighs millions of tons.”

It’s difficult to fathom that Pennsylvania waste coal might carry any monetary worth to speak of considering how such piles were long ago proven to be health hazards that poison any environment upon which they sit. Moreover, the instances in which that danger has revealed itself have been jarring.

In the summer of 1964, millions of dead fish collected at the surface of Slippery Rock Creek in northern Butler County, Pennsylvania. Blame for causing the disturbing scene was laid at the feet of the coal mining industry, and more specifically at the presence of the millions of tons of waste coal that blanketed areas of Butler County.

William Guckert, executive chairman of the Alleghany County Sportsmen’s League, told a United Press International reporter that “millions of gallons of acid water collected at waste coal piles in swamps,” and this toxic waste was now devastating Pennsylvania’s natural resources.

Such sites became more common in the waterways close to waste coal sites in the years that followed. In the summer of 1970, Missouri was beset by three separate instances of waste coal runoff devastating fish populations in their waterways, including Tebo Creek, Rocky Ford, and Cedar Creek. Investigations followed the incidents, but the culprit was already clear to anyone who had been paying attention decades prior to the toxicity of waste coal piles. In 1951, the Pennsylvania State Sanitary Water Board issued a statement following a research report issued by Mellon Institute of Industrial Research at the University of Pittsburgh.

At the conclusion of the State’s multi-year study into the reduction of water pollution caused by Pennsylvania’s coal mines and their byproducts, the report concluded that “although acid mine drainage can be chemically treated with lime or alkalies to neutralize acid, such a method is not practical or feasible because of the economic and other factors involved.” “This confirms what we’ve known for a long time,” added J.R. Hofferth, chief engineer of the Bureau of Sanitary Engineering.

What Hofferth and others knew more than 70 years ago was there was no way to effectively stop the pollution caused by waste coal. Yet, with seemingly endless piles of coal stretching for miles across Northern Appalachia, the absence of any value contained within the coal provided no incentive for anyone to remove the waste, especially given the exorbitant cost. According to Bill Smith, time, technology, and national necessity have caught up to waste coal in a way that he believes may soon touch off a race to acquire what has hitherto been regarded as a toxic eyesore. And this brings us back to the laboratory reports of the contents of Smith’s waste coal test samples.

“The coal from these sites tests positive for healthy quantities of rare earth elements, along with aluminum, lithium, manganese, and a bunch of other minerals that the Department of Defense has deemed to be a matter of national security,” explains Smith. “The U.S. pretty much gave up on mining these minerals years ago, and China picked up the baton. The government now wants production of these minerals to find its way back to U.S. soil.”

Smith concedes that identifying the presence of valuable minerals in waste coal is far simpler than actually extracting them. Or at least that used to be the case. “The thing is, it used to be very difficult to separate the rare earth minerals from waste coal in an efficient way,” concedes Smith. “This is why it’s helpful to have a background in renewable energy. If you do, you’d understand how to make the juice worth the squeeze.”

Smith’s choice of the word “juice” is a double entendre. As the CEO of Firepoint Energy—a waste-to-energy company headquartered in Wyoming—he’s alluding to the capability of harnessing the remaining power potential contained within the coal.

“If you crush the waste coal and funnel it into a plasma gasifier, the BTU value of waste coal is captured in the form of a synthetic gas—or syngas,” says Smith. “That syngas can be processed through a gas-to-liquids system and merged with different catalysts to produce clean diesel fuel, sustainable aviation fuel, or several other renewable energy sources.”

But what about the rare earth minerals? “Those remain behind in the form of a sludge,” continues Smith. “From there, you can use different hydrometallurgical processes to separate the different minerals from the sludge, almost always recovering at least 95 percent of them, and often all of them. What makes our plan work is the fact that we have two very valuable revenue streams attached to it. We can sell the sustainable aviation fuel, and we can sell the recovered rare earth elements, and we can do it all while clearing away the waste coal.”

In addition to combing through waste coal piles, Smith has also spent time in the Pennsylvania State Capital of Harrisburg, attempting to drum up support for his plan amongst policymakers. He says he’s garnered a fair amount of support and interest during his short time in the state, and made an ally out of another Smith—Pennsylvania’s District 66 State Representative Brian Smith.

“The technology is a win-win,” said Rep. Smith. “Without Firepoint Energy, these waste coal piles would continue to slowly pollute our air and water, in addition to taking up loads of space. Now, we can use these waste piles to help produce jet fuel, and even recover rare earth minerals, which can reduce our reliance on China.”

As with any grand plan, it’s difficult to get off the ground without money. However, given the stakes and the potential windfall that investors could potentially reap from the exchange, Bill Smith is confident that his phone will be ringing soon. “The missing piece of the puzzle has always been the need to make it financially attractive for businesses to do the right thing,” says Smith. “With billions of dollars in potential profits to be made from waste coal, that challenge has all but been eliminated.”

It’s beginning to sound like the responsible thing to do also happens to be the most financially advantageous course of action. It also appears that there’s a killing to be made from the waste coal piles of Pennsylvania, and this time, it doesn’t involve a waterway filled with dead fish.


Register or Login to leave a comment