Environmental groups are calling on state regulators to deny a request from a crypto-mining company to burn tires as fuel for its operations.
Some companies have taken over waste coal plants in Pennsylvania to power the energy-intensive process of making cryptocurrency.
Now Stronghold Digital Mining is looking for permission to make up to 15 percent of its fuel at the Panther Creek plant in Nesquehoning from shredded tires — known as TTire Derived Fuel.
Linda Christman, the president of the advocacy group Save Carbon County, said the move would increase the pollution burden on a vulnerable community.
“This is not something that should be dumped on a county like Carbon County,” Christman said.
She said 36% of people living within one mile of the Panther Creek plant live under the federal poverty line. The Department of Environmental Protection defines an Environmental Justice Area as any census tract where 20% or more individuals live at or below the federal poverty line.
Stronghold Digital Mining did not respond to a request for comment.
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DEP says TDF is a permitted fuel and emissions are evaluated as part of the application process. Four places are permitted to use TDF in the state. Those plants use it in combination with other fuels.
But groups including Earthjustice, PennFuture, and Clean Air Council say most of those are cement kilns and one is a waste coal power plant that has violated federal air quality standards.
“Because [Panther Creek] uses the electricity it produces to generate cryptocurrency, rather than selling that electricity to the energy grid, the plant should be completely re-permitted as a solid waste incinerator that would be subject to increased air pollution monitoring requirements,” said Russell Zerbo, an advocate with Clean Air Council.
Steve Chuckra, also with Save Carbon County, lives about five miles from Panther Creek.
“I grew up in Pennsylvania and I feel very strongly that we have a heritage of environmental neglect. And allowing things like this to happen is just continuing that bad heritage,” Chuckra said.
Advocates say similar plans to burn TDF have failed to stay under pollution limits.
In 2006, a paper mill in Ticonderoga, New York attempted a test of mixing TDF with oil. It cut the test short when emissions neared the permitted limit. A spokesperson for the mill said after the event that more pollution controls would be needed to keep emissions in check.
Charles McPhedran, an attorney with Earthjustice, said Panther Creek’s crypto-mining operations pose the same environmental and health threats as its original purpose as a power plant. He said sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions skyrocketed after Stronghold took over the plant. Those emissions are known to irritate respiratory conditions, such as asthma.
Burning tires releases carcinogens and metals into the air.
An archived page on the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s website says, “EPA supports the highest and best practical use of scrap tires in accordance with the waste management hierarchy, in order of preference: reduce, reuse, recycle, waste-to-energy, and disposal in an appropriate facility.”
This story is produced in partnership with StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration among The Allegheny Front, WPSU, WITF and WHYY to cover the commonwealth's energy economy.