By Jared Stonesifer
March 9, 2018 - Three coal refuse-to-energy power plants in western Pennsylvania and two in West Virginia are in danger of closing because of federal environmental regulations, but U.S. Rep. Keith Rothfus hopes to save them with a bill that passed the House of Representatives on Thursday.
Rothfus, who has introduced the bill each of the past several years, celebrated Thursday after the House passed his bill, called the SENSE Act. The House also passed the SENSE Act in March 2016, although the bill was not taken up for consideration in the Senate.
If the bill passes the Senate this time and is signed into law, it would amend the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards rule by making small, targeted changes to current emissions limits for these plants. Those changes would mostly affect hydrogen chloride and sulfur dioxide emissions.
The entire bill concerns coal refuse-to-energy plants, which take coal waste left over after decades of mining and burn it to produce electricity.
According to Rothfus, these types of power plants have reclaimed and remediated more than 7,000 acres of abandoned mine lands, but there are still more than 800 waste coal piles in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, spanning thousands of acres.
In addition to the environmental benefits of cleaning up coal waste piles, Rothfus said, his bill will help protect hundreds of jobs that could be lost if these plants go offline. He also said it would cost $2 billion to clean up coal refuse piles in Pennsylvania, a cost that would shift to taxpayers if the refuse-to-energy industry were to disappear.
The congressman said Thursday he was “proud” that the legislation passed in the House and promised it would “protect the environment, save jobs, taxpayer resources and provide energy that western Pennsylvanian families depend on.”
“This bill is a common-sense solution to keeping these plants open and workers on the job so they can continue restoring the environment and improving community safety,” he said.
Despite that, Rothfus is aware this his legislation has passed in the House before, only to go nowhere in the Senate. But this time he remains hopeful and noted that both of Pennsylvania’s senators have supported similar legislation in the past.
Asked Thursday why he remains hopeful, considering his bill failed to gain traction previously in the Senate, Rothfus said he’s confident that those within the industry will make their voices heard in the Senate.
“My belief is those who are intimately involved with this work, and these jobs, will be reaching out to their senators,” he said.
Rothfus’ bill isn’t being celebrated by everyone.
Joseph Otis Minott, executive director of the Philadelphia-based Clean Air Council, called it a “pathetic, desperate attempt to afford special treatment to a dying industry that threatens clean air and public health.”
He also railed against the fact that Rothfus said the bill could help the environment by facilitating the cleanup of coal waste piles.
“This bill has nothing to do with saving the environment,” he said. “Indeed, it is just another handout to corporate polluters and the coal industry with a bill that guts the protections of the Clean Air Act. Waste coal plants are among the dirtiest that exist, and the so-called ‘small, targeted’ exemptions included in this bill will directly result in increased emissions of neurotoxins like mercury, plain and simple.”
There is no timetable on when the Senate might take up its own version of the SENSE Act.
The SENSE Act — which stands for Satisfying Energy Needs and Saving the Environment Act — passed the House on Thursday by a vote of 215 to 189.
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