FREELAND, Pa. (AP) — Henry "Hank" Zielinski scanned a landscape that seems otherworldly: black, barren and bumpy with mounds of coal and rock.
Bulldozers scooped black rubble into huge trucks, which emptied their loads into a screening machine.
The machine ejected large rocks on the side and carried finer material up a conveyor.
From atop the conveyor belt, a sandy stream rained down to a big black pile.
The black sand is silt, one of the coal wastes discarded by miners of yesteryear in the Foster Township area of Highland, a mile west of Eckley Miners Village Museum.
Waste coal wasn't useful for the furnaces of homes and factories that previous generations of miners supplied with fuel.
But now mining engineers like Zielinski can extract fuel from the waste coal using a different boiler.
They're called fluidized bed boilers, but contain no fluid.
Instead, jets of air on the boiler's bottom shoot upward, giving fluidity to the fuel particles.
After engineers realized that fluidized bed boilers could burn waste coal, companies started building power stations — known locally as cogeneration plants — in 1987.
Of the 18 cogeneration plants in the nation, 14 are in Pennsylvania.
One of them in Northampton Borough in a county of the same name is owned by Northampton Fuel Supply, Zielinski's employer.
For the past decade, Northampton's workers have been extracting waste coal from about 100 acres that the firm rents in Highland and Eckley.
The land, owned by Jeddo Coal, includes two silt lagoons, now dry, that are being processed. There are culm banks of coarser coal, rock and other wastes. A smaller silt lagoon that off-roaders call The Arena provides a fuel source that Northampton will dig into later.
Since beginning operations, Northampton and other cogeneration companies have produced power and powered the state's economy.
The cogenerators at their peak employed more than 540 people at average salaries of $70,000.
Direct expenditures from cogeneration companies hit a peak of $432 million a year. The companies do business with trucking firms, scientific consultants and other businesses that generate an estimated $736 million for the economy and support 3,600 jobs, according to a report commissioned last month by their trade association, ARIPPA.
Falling energy prices, pushed down by a ready supply of natural gas extracted from the Marcellus Shale formation in Pennsylvania and other states, hurt the cogenerators.
Last year, the cogeneration plants produced 33 percent less electricity, according to a report that Econsult Solutions of Philadelphia did for ARIPPA.
Production is expected to decline again this year, along with direct spending and employment.
Northampton now employs 33 people at Eckley and its power plant, where more than 60 people worked previously.
Some workers from Panther Creek, an affiliated firm that idled its cogeneration plant, assist Northampton's workers at Eckley.
In addition to the economic changes, cogeneration companies wonder how new regulations within the president's Clean Coal Plan will affect them.
When measured against current regulations, the waste coal plants tend to emit less mercury, a natural component of coal, than do new coal plants.
Adding limestone to the waste coal in fluidized bed boilers reduces sulfur emissions and reduces acid rain.
The president's plan, though being contested in court now, could close some coal-burning plants to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, which contribute to climate change.
"Our industry is heavily challenged," Zielinski said. "... Maybe power generation is not our priority. Maybe land reclamation is our cup of tea."
Northampton and the other cogenerators always reclaimed land as they produced power.
This year, Northampton won the National Award for Excellence in Surface Coal Mining from the United States Office of Surface Mining and Reclamation and Enforcement for reclaiming the Loomis culm bank in Nanticoke.
In Nanticoke, the company spent 11 years processing waste coal left in a pile nearly 700 feet high.
As at the Loomis bank, wherever companies remove waste coal, they improve the quality of land, water and air.
After companies reprocess silt, which flowed to lagoons with the wash water from old coal processing plants called breakers, less of the silt flies in the wind.
Culm banks can catch fire so their removal lessens that hazard.
When culm banks wither, so does a source of water pollution called acid mine drainage.
Rain percolates through the banks — Zielinski likens them to giant coffee filters — from which minerals and metals such as iron, aluminum and manganese leach into the water.
Workers also prevent water from seeping through the mined areas by filling pits and regrading land with ash from the cogeneration plants.
Ash can contain hazardous substances such as chromium and arsenic. A devastating spill from an ash pond eight years ago in Tennessee led the National Academy of Sciences to suggest improvements for classifying and disposal.
Northampton, however, doesn't store ash in ponds, and Zielinski said the ash from the Anthracite Region of Northeastern Pennsylvania differs from the ash of bituminous coal from the Tennessee spill.
Cogeneration ash contains limestone, which buffers or reduces the acid environment where it is placed.
The ash also has calcium, which allows it to harden — almost like cement — as it cools, Zielinski said.
Hardened ash is relatively impervious, and workers cap it with clay or soil to further repel water. The workers slope the fill so the water will run off rather than percolate through the site, too. An incline of about 2 percent prevents water from pooling on the surface but slows the runoff enough to prevent the fill from eroding, Zielinski said.
By reducing acid mine drainage, the cogeneration companies have reclaimed 1,200 miles of streams in Pennsylvania, according to the ARIPPA report.
After companies level piles, fill in watery pits and regrade highwalls or rock slopes that people or off-road vehicles could hurtle over, the land is ready for reuse.
In the past 20 years, the companies have reclaimed 7,000 acres and saved the state millions in cleanup costs, the ARIPPA report said.
The state offers companies that re-mine waste coal a shorter permit process than they would follow for new mining.
As the industry contracted, however, the amount of waste coal reclaimed declined this year to 5 million tons, about half the annual amount removed and used during the period between 2010 and 2014.
At Highland, Zielinski looked beyond the black landscape to the north and west where maple trees showed their fall colors. Waste coal blocked the trees from view until Northampton started whittling away at the banks.
Zielinski pointed to where the company has planted trees on 15 acres already reclaimed. White dust coats another 20 acres. Workers spread limestone while getting ready to replant that ground.
As Zielinski drove around other work sites in Highland and Eckely, he bounced over ruts and down rocky slopes in a pickup truck that already has survived 300,000 miles.
On Wednesday, the state announced it will provide funds to expand the Hazleton rail-trail to the museum at Eckley. Zielinski said one route would have passed through land that Northampton won't finish reclaiming for years, but he is not sure of the latest route.
Tom Ogorzalek, who has won an award for his volunteer work on the trail, said the route will require a bridge near the south end of the Hazlebrook Tunnel, climb over Buck Mountain and approach the Buck Mountain Road before meeting the museum's service entrance.
As Zielinski drove past rock piles, he said workers will use some of the rocks to build homes for bats, which have suffered drastic losses from infections of white-nose syndrome.
The Eckley cemetery, visible from the passenger side window of Zielinski's truck, was so overgrown years ago that he barely saw the tombstones amid the trees and brush. Pruning afforded him a closer look at the graves, which date to the 1850s.
"A lot of babies. A lot of young men," he said.
He drove as close to a water-filled mine pit as he could before leaving the truck and scampering down a rocky bank to the shore.
Look, don't touch
The water was clear but Zielinski cautioned against touching it. Some mine pools are acidic enough to blister skin.
He said the pit is at the end of a geosyncline, a deposit of coal shaped like a canoe that stretched about two-thirds of a mile from bow to stern.
Sometime, probably after World War II, a mining company scooped out the coal, leaving smooth rock that slopes down to the water.
Sheer slopes like that pose a hazard to off-road vehicles, bikers or hikers. Zielinski said Northampton plans to fill the pit.
At his last stop, Zielinski parked up a slope overlooking The Arena.
Working at full speed, Northampton's crews could possibly remove all the silt from the oval-shaped lagoon there in six months.
Given the current economy, Zielinski expects the job will last two to three years. He said the company blends higher-energy fuel like silt with lower-grade materials to help the cogeneration plant's boiler operate efficiently.
Old-time miners separated waste, Zielinski said, almost as if they expected someone like him to arrive in the future with a way to burn it.
When studying sites, where he occasionally finds railroad spikes and hammers left by another generation of miners, Zielinski notices how his predecessors organized waste deposits. Silt, which moved through pipes, remains in the lagoons where it settled.
Generally, silt contains more carbon than the banks of culm.
Culm, which is short for culmination, is the rock that remained after sorting out the coal in a breaker, like the one that used to stand in Highland, but separation never was complete.
The carbon left within the culm will burn in Northampton's cogeneration plant.
So will the clinkers — bits of black, tan and rust material. They fused like a popcorn ball in a furnace that kept the breaker warm during the winter, but were buried with other coal waste at Highland and Eckley.
Sometimes, excavators uncover pure coal sorted by the breakers but never sold.
Screening the waste coal to separate the large rocks from the finer, richer fuels like silt, is the most cost-effective method of finding fuel, Zielinski said.
Northampton also can sort larger material, at higher cost, by placing it into a liquid at a processing plant in Highland.
In the liquid, coal and bony coal chunks that are part rock and part coal float, while unburnable rock sinks. Northampton pays a tax on each ton of coal sent through the liquid processing plant, just as they company would pay tax on freshly mined coal.
There's no tax, Zielinski said, on the waste coal, such as silt that blew off The Arena to the hillside where he parked his pickup.
Pitch pines poked through the black sand. They grow gnarled from withstanding wind that carves furrows in the dunes and scrapes away bark until downed limbs resemble drift wood.
"It seems like they're hanging onto life," said Zielinski, who considers the pines to be the Anthracite Region's equivalent of the Joshua Tree National Park in the California desert.
He has worked in California and Ohio in gas plants and mined in West Virginia.
Compared to West Virginia where miners removed mountain tops to uncover coal, Zielinski prefers restoring mine land in Northeastern Pennsylvania, where he grew up.
"It's a fun job. I see different issues form year to year," he said.
Information from: Standard-Speaker, http://www.standardspeaker.com