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National Gypsum will turn sludge from power plant into wallboard

Waste recycling is big business for dirty business

Monday, March 09, 1998

By Jim McKay and Ken Zapinski, Post-Gazette Staff Writers

It looks like a project in which everybody wins.

Capture the pollutants that otherwise would spew out of the smokestacks of a coal-burning power plant. Process the pollution-capturing waste, and turn it into raw material for constructing homes and other buildings.

National Gypsum Co. broke ground last week in Shippingport on a $79.1 million plant to do exactly that. The plant, to be operational in 2000 and to employ 150, will make wallboard out of the sludge produced in cleaning up emissions from Pennsylvania Power Co.'s nearby Bruce Mansfield plant.

More and more, utility companies are looking for ways, like this, to reuse the ash and other troublesome wastes produced in burning coal. At least three other plants using power plant waste to make synthetic gypsum for wallboard were proposed in the United States last year. Duquesne Light Co., experimenting with useful ways to use waste, has mixed ash into special cellular concrete blocks to build a house.

U.S. power plants burned 870 million tons of coal in 1996, producing about 100 million tons of ash. Only about a quarter of that was recycled, according to the Electric Power Research Institute, meaning 75 million tons needed to be placed in landfills or otherwise disposed of.

At the Bruce Mansfield plant, located about 25 miles northwest of Pittsburgh along the Ohio River, nearly half a million tons of sludge are dumped each year into the 800-acre Little Blue Run disposal area.

The new National Gypsum plant will convert most of that output into 600 million square feet of plaster board sandwiched between recycled paper sheets.

Tim Flora, manager of diversified services for FirstEnergy Corp., Penn Power's Akron-based parent, called the project one of the largest recycling efforts ever undertaken in North America.

"This is one of those pretty unusual projects in which everybody benefits," Flora said. "Everyone quite honestly wins."

National Gypsum, of Charlotte, N.C., and other wallboard makers are increasingly turning to synthetic gypsum made from power-plant effluent as a lower-cost alternative to mining gypsum from natural underground deposits.

Penn Power, for its part, expects the plant will help lower the cost of operating Bruce Mansfield and extend the useable life of its Little Blue Run disposal area, a lagoon that straddles the line between Pennsylvania and Ohio.

Penn Power scrubs out most of the acid-rain-causing sulfur dioxide from emissions by spraying the emissions with a lime and water mix that neutralizes acidity. The resulting sludge - calcium sulfite and fly ash - is mixed with more lime and a stabilizer and piped seven miles to the lagoon.

Penn Power and Dravo Lime, with $250,000 in financial help from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and other aid from the Beaver County Corp. for Economic Development, developed and patented technology to turn the calcium sulfite into calcium sulfate, or gypsum, and then to remove the leftover fly ash.

The resulting synthetic gypsum, which Flora described as similar to white colored wet sand, will be shipped by conveyor belt under a highway to the nearby National Gypsum plant.

The National Gypsum plant will use between 50 percent and 90 percent of the Mansfield power plant's scrubber waste. The variation depends on the sulfur content in the coal that Mansfield burns and how much electricity the plant is producing. The lower the coal's sulfur content, the less scrubber waste is produced.

The current plan is to move 450,000 tons a year of converted scrubber waste to the National Gypsum plant. Flora said that would be nearly equal the amount created when low-sulfur coal is burned.

Wallboard is not the only use for power plant waste. But that very phrase -- "power plant waste" -- is one of the public relations hurdles the electric industry must overcome as it develops recycling projects.

The electric industry finds itself at a peculiar confluence of environmental philosophies. People like the principle of recycling, but many are not too comfortable with products made from items like "ash" or "plant waste." That is why the industry's preferred term is "coal combustion byproduct."

Phraseology doesn't always help. Some Munhall residents protested when a developer wanted to use a rock-like mixture of Duquesne Light coal-ash for fill on a construction project. But the material has been used as fill on a number of road projects in the Mon Valley, such as the embankments for the Youghiogheny River bridge linking McKeesport and Port Vue.

And the state Department of Environmental Protection has given Duquesne Light a general permit for use of the material, which will make it easier for the utility to win permission for future projects.

The ash produced by a Delaware utility, Delmarva Power & Light, was too high in carbon for some recycling uses, so the utility looked to new areas, such as using it in roof shingles, in asphalt and in aluminum castings for engine blocks.

The utility has netted more than $15 million since 1988 in additional revenues and avoided disposal costs, according to the Electric Power Research Institute. The market has been so lucrative, in fact, that Delmarva began mining old ash from its disposal pits.

Power plants produce several types of waste products.

The largest ash, which falls down from the boiler, is what is commonly known as cinders. It is typically reused in northern climates on icy roads.

The smaller ash, known as fly ash, is a powdery substance that is captured by filtering sysSC.2tems before it flows out the smokestack.

And the scrubbers that remove most of the smoke's sulfur dioxide produce calcium-based materials.

Duquesne Light mixes lime with the fly ash and calcium scrubber material from its Elrama power plant on the Washington County border. When the dark gray slop dries, it turns rock hard. Some of the mix is sold for road projects, construction fill and mine stabilization. But most of it is trucked to a company-run landfill on Route 837 where it is slowly filling in a large hollow just south of Clairton.

Marketing the fill doesn't make money for the utility but it does reduce its waste disposal costs, according to Duquesne Light spokeswoman Terri Glueck. "Those are the kinds of things that help us keep a lid on our rates," she said.

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