PITTSBURGH (AP) — A company that treated wastewater from coal mines and gas drilling operations near Pittsburgh has closed, and state officials are scrambling to clean up a mess that's still there.
The majority of the waste is coal-related, but a "considerable amount of sludge in a pond" appears to be from the recent Marcellus Shale gas drilling boom, said John Poister, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. Acid mine water and sludge is building up and could overflow into the Conemaugh River if left untreated.
Poister said the owners of Tunnelton Liquids Company in Saltsburg "essentially just locked the gates and walked away."
One owner of the business strongly disputed that.
"We did not walk away," Al Lander said. "What DEP is doing to me is a travesty. We've asked for meetings, we've held meetings. We got nowhere."
The two sides do agree on one thing: The business began to struggle in early 2011 after the state pressured the industry to stop sending Marcellus Shale wastewater to plants that discharged the treated product into rivers and streams.
"Their ability to take on oil and gas drilling water pretty much dried up," Poister said, adding that most companies now recycle wastewater at the drill site and send the residual sludge to landfills, not wastewater plants.
George Jugovic, a former DEP regional administrator who is now with the environmental group Penn Future, said the treatment plant had a long history of problems but was still allowed to operate.
"Why didn't the department ever take an enforcement action, for years?" Jugovic said. A plan must also be developed to deal with ongoing acid mine drainage from the former coal operations nearby, he added.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had previously filed a lawsuit over underground disposal of coal mining sludge at the site.
Poister said DEP is moving ahead with the cleanup under authority of the state Hazardous Sites Cleanup Act.
"We're going to do the cleanup, and at some point of time, we would hope to recover some of that money, if not all of it," Poister said, adding that they are waiting for test results from the site.
About 20 people attended a DEP meeting held Tuesday near the plant to discuss the cleanup, Poister said.