U.S. Rep. Keith Rothfus

U.S. Rep. Keith Rothfus, right, and Jerry Stephens of Stephens Consulting Services listen as Alan Metzler, plant manager of the Seward Power Plant, describes the site's waste-coal process for producing electricity during a tour of the plant on Friday, March 18, 2016. In this view from the roof of the Seward Power Plant, the Conemaugh Generating Station in New Florence can be seen in the background.

SEWARD – U.S. Rep. Keith Rothfus, R-Sewickley, toured the Seward Generation plant Friday to get a close look at an energy process he has been working to save.

The Seward power plant burns refuse coal with limestone to reduce levels of sulphur dioxide while producing both electricity and fly ash – which is returned to mine sites and mixed with soil in land reclamation efforts.

The Seward plant has 83 permanent employees, and company officials say 290 local jobs are associated with the plant, including those in trucking and materials handling.

On Tuesday, the U.S. House passed a Rothfus-sponsored bill that would protect refuse-to-energy plants from tightening federal regulations.

Former Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. Mark Singel joined Rothfus on the tour. Singel, a Johnstown native, is president and CEO of The Winter Group, a Harrisburg lobbying firm that has taken up the cause of refuse coal plants.

"I can't imagine a more important economic-development issue for this region," Singel said.

"And this happens to be a good environmental policy as well. Now we just have to get it through the Senate and convince the Obama Administration that there needs to be some flexibility in their 'get tough on coal' policy."

The Satisfying Energy Needs and Saving the Environment (SENSE) Act would ensure that coal refuse-to-energy plants comply with "appropriate, balanced standards," Rothfus' office said in a news release, in exchange for the opportunity to continue generating power by burning waste coal.

Judson Kroh, CFO of Robindale Energy, called the Seward site "one of the cleanest-burning waste coal sites around, and probably the cleanest coal plant in the country."

The Seward plant receives about 700 truckloads of waste coal a day, along with 120 truckloads of limestone for reducing the acidity of the coal during the power-generation process. Officials estimated that the plant burns 3 million tons of waste coal a year, "and we still have a 30-year supply out there," said Operations Manager Ken Beck.

Rothfus said more than 5,000 people work in the refuse coal industry across the state, noting that the removal of waste-coal dumps – known as boney piles, or gobs – helps improve the environment by reducing acid-mine drainage into rivers and streams.

"There's a good story here," he said.

"It took us three years to get to this point, and the bill we passed this week is even more limiting than the one I introduced last year.

"But a reasonable person can look at this and say, 'This makes sense.' This process is helping to clean up the environment, is providing family-sustaining jobs and is providing electricity for the grid. Win. Win. Win."

Kroh noted that left untreated, waste coal piles can combust on their own, releasing chemicals into the air.

"If you shut down this power plant, it's a net increase in damage to air quality," Kroh said.

Chip Minemyer is the editor of The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at (814) 532-5091. Follow him on Twitter @MinemyerChip.

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