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Fish Or Cut Bait

Recycling for Profit and Preservation
by Bob Ciminel

June 29, 2005

Given my fondness for railroads, I was pleased to learn that two railroads with which I am intimately familiar are now associated with major recycling projects. One project will resurrect a recently abandoned rail line that connects with the Blue Ridge Scenic Railroad tourist operation in the North Georgia Mountains, where I've volunteered as brakeman and conductor since 1998. Another project involves an abandoned railroad that operated in the southern suburbs of my former hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, the project will not resurrect the railroad because the right-f-way was converted into a Rails-to-Trails project soon after abandonment.

jpg aerial photo coal washer

Aerial photo of the Champion No. 1 coal washer taken in 1946...
Photo courtesty the Historic Pittsburgh Image Collection

The Pittsburgh project will consist of 300-megawatt electric power plant built near the site of a former coal cleaning plant that once straddled the main line of the Montour Railroad, a 103-year-old shortline that was abandoned in the early Eighties. The railroad was originally owned by the Pittsburgh Coal Company, but was spun off shortly after World War II when the coal company merged with the Consolidation Coal Company of Maryland. At its peak, the 42-mile long Montour served 27 coal mines along its main track and three branches.

In 1927, Pittsburgh Coal Company built the huge Champion No. 1 cleaning plant at aptly named Champion, PA. The Montour transported run-of-mine coal from the mines to the cleaning plant where it was washed and sorted before being reloaded for delivery to the Montour's five connecting railroads. Waste from the coal cleaning process was primarily slate and shale, locally known as "bony."

The Montour set up a separate rail operation solely to haul the bony to a disposal site located a mile or two from the plant. In the Fifties, the plant installed a conveyer system to transport the bony to a new disposal site located across the highway from the plant, thus eliminating the need to haul the waste by train. Over the next 30 plus years, the new disposal site soon became a huge mountain of waste and an environmental time bomb. Piles of coal waste can spontaneously ignite and smolder for years, emitting smoke and noxious fumes. Runoff from the waste piles can pollute nearby streams with acidic water, adding to the pollution already caused by acid mine drainage. The abandoned piles of coal mining waste became the markers and monuments for a once thriving industry, but until recently served no other useful purpose.

The Champion No. 1 waste pile along the former Montour Railroad right-of-way contains about 37.5 million tons of bony. The original railroad dump site west of the plant contains an additional 17 million tons of waste. Because of the high carbon content in the bony, the 55 million tons of coal waste can provide enough fuel to operate the new power plant for 25 years, generating 2.6 million megawatt-hours of electricity. At an average price of 7 cents per kilowatt-hour, recycling the waste can bring in about $2 billion dollars in revenues, which is not a bad return for burning "dirt."

jpg Copperhill acid plant

The Copperhill acid plant taken in 1912...
Photo courtesy EPA

The second recycling project is located in Copperhill, Tennessee, on the southern fringe of the historic Ducktown copper mining district. The Ducktown ore body produced high grade copper ore for almost 150 years. As with the coal industry near Pittsburgh, copper mining was an extractive industry that produced huge amounts of waste, one of which was calcine, a product rich in iron. There is approximately 10 million tons of calcine lying around the old smelting plant on the outskirts of Copperhill, and until recently, nobody knew what to do with it. The Environmental Protection Agency designated the area a Superfund site, but other than monitoring the runoff into nearby Potato Creek, there wasn't a major plan in the works for removing the waste. The situation changed in 2005 when representatives from China recognized that the calcine was a rich source of iron for their country's hungry steel mills, and that's where the railroad comes into the picture.

The Atlanta, Knoxville, and Northern Railroad, and its successors (Louisville and Nashville, Seaboard, and CSX), served Copperhill and the Ducktown mining district since 1896. The portion of the railroad between Copperhill and Etowah, Tennessee remained in service after the copper mines closed in 1987 thanks to the continued operation of a sulfuric acid plant, which was built in 1907 to process the sulfur dioxide gas emitted from the copper smelter. Although smelter operations ceased in 1987, the sulfuric acid plant began processing liquid sulfur, brought in by the railroad from the Gulf Coast.

The acid plant closed in 2002 when the demand for sulfuric acid made it uneconomical to operate. This spelled the end for the railroad too, and CSX abandoned the rail line in April of that year. The tracks remained in place, and were purchased by a local organization in hopes of preserving the scenic route and, perhaps resurrecting it as a tourist line. Running short of money, the railroad was on the verge of a second abandonment when the Chinese decided they would extract the calcine waste and ship it to their steel mills.

Later this year, the newly incorporated Hiwassee River Railroad will begin running 75-car unit trains to haul the calcine from Copperhill to Etowah, where it will be picked up by CSX for delivery to Atlantic Coast ports and loaded onto ships bound for China. This has to be the ultimate recycling project. Not only are the Chinese paying for one of our industrial waste products, they are also accepting the environmental pollution that will occur when the calcine is turned into iron in their steel mills. For the residents of Copperhill, it is a win-win situation.

Bob Ciminel's articles may include satire and parody, and mix fact with fiction.
He assumes informed readers will be able to tell the difference.

Bob Ciminel lives in Roswell, Georgia, and works for the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations.  Bob is also a conductor on the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway.


Bob Ciminel ©2001 - 2005
All Rights Reserved

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