Environmental issues dominated the headlines in Greene County this year, but no story had more impact on the region than the closure of Alpha Energy’s Emerald Mine.
The staff at the Observer-Reporter’s bureau in Waynesburg overwhelmingly selected the mine closure in late November as Greene County’s top story of the year. The closure was not a surprise – the company had announced the plans in 2014 – but the same could not be said for the loss of Duke Lake at Ryerson Station State Park, which finished a close second in the voting.
Four of the top six stories involved environmental or energy topics. The election of District Magistrate Louis Dayich as the new Greene County judge was sandwiched between stories about large environmental fines being levied against various energy companies and a permit approved to dump coal ash waste from a power plant in Shippingport to the Hatfield’s Ferry landfill along the Monongahela River.
1. The closing of Alpha Natural Resources’ Emerald Mine in November had a strong impact coming at a time when the coal industry appears to be entering a new era of reduced production. Though Alpha attributed the closing to the accessibility of mineable coal, the company itself filed for bankruptcy in August, joining several other large coal producers impacted by the downward turn in the industry.
Environmental regulations making it more difficult to burn coal to produce electricity as well as the abundance of cheap, cleaner-burning natural gas has resulted in the closing of coal-fired power plants and mines that supplied them with fuel. A hearing held in September in Waynesburg on new federal rules that, for first time, regulate carbon dioxide from power plants and require the state to reduce emissions by 33 percent by 2030 also helped bring home the industry’s plight.
Alpha announced in August 2014 that it would close Emerald by the end of 2015 as the remaining coal that could still be mined profitably in its reserves was used. At the time, the mine employed about 500 workers. In announcing the closing, the company said many Emerald workers would probably be transferred to its nearby Cumberland Mine, which has been expanding production. About 130 Emerald miners had been transferred by Nov. 13, the day Emerald Mine officially closed its doors. In addition to the loss of jobs, the closing is expected to have a large impact on the community. The mine, as well as many of its employees, spent money in the community, and contributed heavily to local taxes. The Cumberland and Emerald mines spent $119 million with suppliers and paid $11.9 million in federal, state and local taxes in 2014. According to the Central Greene School District, the Emerald mine alone paid more than $1.3 million in property tax revenue this year.
2. The expectation that Duke Lake at Ryerson Station State Park would return was crushed in July when the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources announced that the ground continues to shift under the dam, meaning the lake cannot be restored. The lake has been dry since 2005 when cracks found in the concrete dam, which the state contends was caused by longwall mining by Consol Energy near the site, forced the DCNR to drain the water. The state and Consol reached a $36 million settlement in 2013 to end litigation, and the money was intended to be used to restore the lake. The DCNR had even submitted a permit application with the state Department of Environmental Protection in May 2012 to rebuild the dam. But it became clear in early 2015 that there was still ground movement, making it a risky proposition to rebuild the dam. The plan is now shifting to use that money to find other amenities that can be built within the 1,164-acre park to attract families and new visitors. The lake bed was dredged over the summer and the vegetation transported to Mather to reclaim the coal waste dump there.
3. During the year, the state Department of Environmental Protection imposed fines for violations involving two major incidents at natural gas well drilling sites in Greene County. In June, DEP fined Chevron Appalachia $940,000 for violations related to the February 2014 explosion and fire at its Lanco well site in Dunkard Township that killed a worker. In November, DEP fined Chesapeake Appalachia LLC $1.4 million for a landslide in September 2011 at a well pad in Aleppo Township that impacted nearby streams and unnamed tributaries. In addition, the state Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission announced it had reached a $2.5 million settlement with the Murray Energy Corp. for civil damages resulting from the devastating 2009 fish kill on Dunkard Creek.
4. The state Department of Environmental Protection performed extensive testing on Ten Mile Creek in June to determine whether radioactive levels in the creek are above safe standards. The DEP announced earlier this month that the testing performed at a dozen sites along Ten Mile Creek determined radioactive levels in the creek are within a normal range. One sludge sample taken from the Clyde Mine’s treatment facility near Clarksville found elevated levels of Radium 228, but it was not high enough to raise public health or environmental concerns, the DEP said in its report. The testing was performed after the DEP took three initial samples in April 2014 showed naturally occurring radioactive materials above normal background levels. The DEP has since said those rudimentary tests used “basic laboratory methodology” that is not accurate enough to be used as a definitive conclusion.
5. District Judge Louis Dayich won the race for Greene County judge against attorney Jeff Grimes in a razor-tight election decided by just 86 votes. The race was so close that it took until the day after the election for Dayich to be declared the winner when the elections office counted all provisional and absentee ballots. Dayich in January will take the seat vacated by former judge William Nalitz when he retired at the beginning of the year. A replacement for Dayich’s district judge position has not yet been named.
6. FirstEnergy Corp. received approval from the state Department of Environmental Protection in September to dispose of coal ash from a Beaver County power plant in the landfill of the closed Hatfield’s Ferry Power Station in Monongahela Township. The company plans to use the 107-acre coal ash landfill at Hatfield’s Ferry to dump coal combustion materials from its Bruce Mansfield Power Plant in Shippingport. The company must find a place to dump coal ash from Bruce Mansfield because the plant’s existing landfill, Little Blue Run, must close by the end of 2016 under a DEP consent agreement. The company has proposed shipping the material more than 100 miles by barge up the Ohio and Monongahela rivers to Hatfield’s Ferry.
7. Hundreds of people packed the Greene County Courthouse in October for a town hall meeting to discuss the growing heroin epidemic that has enveloped the region. Police and local addiction experts explained how heroin use has exploded in Western Pennsylvania since the mid-2000s and that there are no easy answers. The panel’s members said they hoped to continue discussing the issue through workshops or town hall meetings in 2016.
8. A 55-year-old coal miner died in the Dana Mining Co.’s 4 West Mine on June 27 after he was crushed by a set of metal air lock doors that became dislodged and fell, pinning him to the ground. The accident killed John William “Bill” Kelly, 55, of Albright, W.Va., who had 21 years of mining experience. The state Department of Environmental Protection issued five compliance orders to the company, one alleging the air lock door and framing had not properly installed. The last mining fatality to occur in a Greene County mine was six years earlier when a miner died in roof fall at Consol Energy’s Bailey Mine.
9. A Waynesburg University football player had his left leg amputated following a car crash near his hometown in Blair County that killed two friends and injured another person in May. Kurt Detwiler a business administration major who played linebacker for the football team, suffered serious injuries in the crash about eight miles east of Altoona. Detwiler has returned to Waynesburg for several football games during the season as he continues to recuperate back in Blair County.
10. It took nearly four months to identify the body discovered Aug. 21 in a wooded area near the Bortz car dealership in Franklin Township. State police announced Dec. 18 that the body belonged to John Raikes, who hadn’t been seen in his hometown of Fairmont, W.Va., since late June. Investigators ruled out foul play in his death.