FRACKVILLE — Facing economic challenges and environmental concerns, a local firm enlisted a U.S. senator and the Department of Defense on Thursday to tout a controversial coal-to-oil project.
U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., who in November will face re-election against state Treasurer Bob Casey, joined Theodore K. Barna, assistant deputy to the secretary of defense, to voice support for the project.
“How are you? Welcome to the anthracite fields,” said John W. Rich Jr., president of Waste Management and Processors Inc., greeting Santorum in a cramped conference room at the John B. Rich Memorial Power Station.
The media event featured Rich and Santorum standing in front of a large illustration detailing the coal-to-oil process behind a conference table lined with white helmets bearing the Gilberton Power Co. logo, another of Rich’s companies.
The event also included local Republican elected officials and representatives of organized labor.
Rich’s company has faced increasing financial challenges, causing a delay in the groundbreaking for the new facility and ever more vocal opposition from environmental groups who have expressed concerns over emissions.
On Thursday, Rich said increased cost projections caused partly by growing demand worldwide had pushed estimates from $612 million to $725 million for completion, and difficulty securing financing had required a federal loan guarantee.
Rich complained the difficulty with financing revolved mainly around the proposed plant’s revolutionary design which, he said, combines gasification and Fischer-Tropsch Liquefaction Technology, which a release from Santorum’s office touts as the nation’s first.
Although increased costs have required an additional $450 million in federal loan guarantees on top of an initial $100 million commitment from the U.S. Department of Energy, Santorum insisted Thursday he still strongly supports the project.
“I’m still very bullish on it. I think it’s going to happen,” Santorum said.
Barna explained that the fuel produced by the new plant would be of a more environmentally friendly nature containing no sulfur, burning at a lower temperature and pressure producing less nitrous oxide and less particulate matter.
Barna said the fuel would also burn more completely producing less hydrocarbons and has a high cetane rating, allowing for less idling in cold weather.
However, a Philadelphia environmental group complains the plant will also produce up to 99.9 tons each of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide and fine particulate matter, including up to 15 tons of sulfuric acid mist annually.
A Web site designed by the group also claims the plant would generate 500 pounds of mercury annually in various waste streams and release 38 pounds of vaporized mercury into the air annually.
ActionPA, a Philadelphia-based environmental group, designed http://ultradirtyfuels.com, a Web site with an address playing off the address for www.ultracleanfuels.com, the site Rich’s company has designed to promote the Gilberton coal-to-oil project.
The site was designed in collaboration with Schuylkill Tax Payers Opposed to Pollution, a local citizens’ group.
But addressing environmental issues earlier this year, Rich insisted the environmental group is overstating the contaminants potentially produced by the process by listing upper permit limits in the company’s environmental impact statement, which will likely not be reached.
He also complained that substances like vaporized mercury, 4,000 tons per year of sulfur and 1,600 tons of slag were not going to be released into the atmosphere or landfills as claimed on the site, but captured during the process and re-marketed.
“This is the epitome of clean coal technology,” Rich said on Thursday.
Santorum dismissed environmental concerns, insisting critics were ignoring the importance of domestic energy production in an age of global terrorism when he said lowering dependence on Middle East oil had become a national security issue.
“They want clean energy. They want more energy. They just don’t want to produce it in this country,” Santorum said.
Contacted Thursday afternoon, however, a Casey spokesman said Santorum was being disingenuous by suggesting that he alone had championed the coal-to-oil project and was exploiting it for political gain.
“It’s a project that Bob Casey supports and believes is a great way to reduce dependence on foreign oil,” Larry Smar said.
“A group of people have been fighting for this for a very long time. It’s been a team effort,” he added.