July 22, 2008

Decision Awaited on Mine Water

By Maria Herne, Republican & Herald, Pottsville, Pa.

Jul. 22--For the past five years, water from an abandoned coal mine in Schuylkill County has been used to support another form of energy -- a nuclear power plant about 75 miles downstream.

Exelon Nuclear, the owners of the Limerick Generating Station, a nuclear power plant in Montgomery County, has been pumping water from a Wadesville mine pool into the East Norwegian Creek to augment water levels in the Schuylkill River, which ends up flowing through the cooling towers of a nuclear reactor.

In 2002, the Delaware River Basin Commission, a federal agency that monitors and controls water withdrawals in the 13,539-square-mile, four-state watershed, approved the plan on a short-term basis with an operating and monitoring plan in place.

But now the trial period is up, and environmental officials must decide if the project should be scrapped or supported.

"We'll be reviewing the data from the past five years and plan to make a decision on it by Dec. 31," said Katherine O'Hara, a DRBC spokeswoman.

Exelon uses an average of 17.5 million gallons of water a day, including water from the Delaware River, a drinking water source for more than 1 million people, for its cooling process, said Rachelle Benson, a media spokesperson for Exelon Nuclear.

The Limerick plant consists of two units which are cooled by closed-cycle natural draft cooling towers that require a combined average of 24,300 gallons per minute and a maximum of 29,200 gallons per minute at full power, according to company reports.

In 2002, when Exelon evaluated other suitable water sources to increase flow into the river, it discovered the abandoned Wadesville mine pool, which is on the grounds of a former colliery owned by Reading Anthracite.

According to a report commissioned through the U.S. Department of Energy, the Wadesville Pool is not acidic, unlike other abandoned mine drainage. It was found to contain alkaline water, with a near-neutral pH between 6 and 8. Purified water has a pH of 7.

Exelon was required to obtain permission from the DRBS before it could have water pumped into the East Norwegian Creek, a tributary of the Schuylkill River, to increase the river's flow.

A five-member board of the DRBC is reviewing the results to decide if it should be continued, Benson said.

"What we've been doing for five years is a demonstration project; we've been testing and collecting data and monitoring water quality and we're in the process right now of working with various agencies to have that continue," Benson said.

O'Hara said the data, which has been compiled so far on the use of water from the mine pool, indicates the water source is "operationally reliable and environmentally suitable" to augment the Schuylkill River flow.

"So far, there's been no glaring problems," she said.

The DRBC reports on the Exelon/ Wadesville project can be found at their Web site at www.state.nj.us/drbc/.

Benson said as part of the agreement with the DRBC, Exelon has also agreed to create a Schuylkill River Restoration fund, which would disburse grants to various agencies committed to improving water quality in the Schuylkill River.

The fund is monitored by the Schuylkill River Heritage Area in Berks County. The restoration fund monies are to be used solely for the purpose of supporting projects in the Schuylkill River basin that are consistent with restoration and water management goals for the Schuylkill River, she said.

DRBC officials must also approve funds being committed to a particular project.

According to Tim Fenchel, grants program coordinator for the Schuylkill River Heritage Area, Exelon's annual contribution to the fund is based on the amount of water that is not required to be pumped from the Delaware River for cooling purposes at the Limerick plant.

The restoration grants can be used to support projects that involve storm water management, agricultural runoff mitigation, and acid mine drainage, Fenchel said.

Kurt D. Zwikl, Executive Director of the Schuylkill River Heritage Area, said the fund has had a positive impact on the quality of the watershed.

"There are even plans to expand contributors to this fund so that there will be more money for more projects to improve the watershed," Zwikl said


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