PORTAGE - Between noon and 1 p.m. Thursday, coal trucks made about a dozen trips up or down Shoemaker Circle in Portage Township. It was a "train day," when access to the Amfire Mining Co. coal preparation plant must be gained via the residential road.
The truck traffic and coal dust have been concerns for residents who live along the road for some time and caused tension at township supervisor meetings.
"Safety is the main thing," Shoemaker resident Paul Maul said. "When there's a train day, kids can't play outside."
Photo for the Mirror by Clayton Over
Amfire Mining Co. acquired Cooney Brothers Coal Co. in 2004, and since then, some residents have said truck traffic and dust has increased.
The sheer volume of the traffic is problematic, Maul said. There were times when he counted more than 70 trucks an hour traveling the road. Maul said his father, who also lives on the road, could sometimes not get out of his driveway because of the trucks.
Coal dust is also a concern to Maul. Black sediment forms at the bottom of the swimming pool outside his home and sometimes has floated on top.
"If you clean it, it comes right back," Maul said.
Betty Bracken lives across Shoemaker Circle from Maul. Families with children seem to keep them indoors during train days, Bracken said, but she fears what would happen if a child would walk onto the road at the wrong time.
"If one of them would happen to step out on the road, they [the trucks] would never get stopped in time," Bracken said.
The dust also bothers Bracken. She points to dirt on her windows and sills.
Hauling coal on Shoemaker Circle is nothing new. The preparation and train loading facility formerly was used by Cooney Brothers Coal Co., and Shoemaker Circle has been used to haul coal for decades. According to its website, Amfire acquired the facility in 2004.
Bracken and Maul have lived on Shoemaker Circle their entire lives and said there was less truck traffic and dust before Amfire started operations there.
"It's gradually gotten worse," Bracken said.
Amfire is owned by Virginia-based Alpha Natural Resources. Shoemaker Circle is only used eight or nine times a month, Alpha Natural Resources spokesman Steve Hawkins said via email, when a train is loaded at the prep plant. The train blocks the normal access road to the plant, and deliveries must be rerouted through Shoemaker Circle.
Hawkins said that Amfire has met with township supervisors and worked to communicate with mines that use the prep plant to reduce the amount of traffic on train days.
"The coal mines are now asked not to haul during those times, to schedule around those times, if at all possible," Hawkins said in the email.
The number of trucks using the road has been reduced by "80 percent," he said.
Maul said there has been some improvement, and he has noticed a decrease in traffic. Earlier this month, he counted almost 30 in an hour one day and 45 another day. There sometimes used to be "black sludge" along the road as well, Maul said, which has since disappeared.
He is skeptical about the headway.
"How long does that last, til we stop griping?" Maul asked.
Residents of Shoemaker Circle have been attending township supervisors meetings about the issue and contacted the Department of Environmental Protection about dust.
John Poister, spokesman for the DEP office in Pittsburgh, said an inspection was conducted late last year and a compliance order was issued to Amfire in January about dust leaving the permitted zone.
The agency conducted air quality studies in April, but no violations were found, Poister said. The air quality staff from the DEP office in Ebensburg is conducting ongoing dust samplings this summer. The results will be evaluated, and enforcement action will be taken if dust levels exceed what is allowable, he said.
Amfire has taken measures to limit dust after being issued the compliance order, Poister said. The company installed eight poles to spray water around the coal stockpile and will begin installing a wind and dust barrier in mid-August.
"They are working to comply with that order. But we are continuing the monitoring, and we will continue to monitor," Poister said.
Maul and Bracken said they believe township supervisors could do more about the truck traffic on the road. Supervisors said they have talked to the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors and their options are limited.
A representative from PSATS did not return calls for comment.
Poister said there is little the township can do about dust because the DEP is the only regulatory oversight on coal.
At the last Portage Township supervisors meeting, it was announced a road study to determine the safety and weight limit for Shoemaker Circle had been completed. Supervisors have to meet with the township engineer, who conducted the study, and the solicitor to make decisions about the results of the study.
Chairman Supervisor Bill Cooper said they have not met with the engineer and solicitor but will know something by the Aug. 6 supervisors meeting.
Both Cooper and Maul said that an alternate route for coal traffic will provide the best solution. Amfire has hired a consulting firm that is conducting a feasibility study about such a route.
The company would not disclose the firm conducting the study, but Hawkins said the process includes traffic studies and assessing impact on property, the environment and historical and archaeological factors.
"Amfire is looking at an alternate route for the trucks, but that will take at least a year to complete," Hawkins said.