Developer, Bill Rinaldi joins with Pa regulators, town to reclaim mine

By Elizabeth McGowan

Day after day, neighbors in Hazleton, Pa, are starkly reminded of their city’s 150-year tradition of coal extraction. It is, after all, nearly impossible to avoid a crater as massive as 300 contiguous football fields in your own backyard.

To William Rinaldi, however, the gaping maw represents nothing less than a gold mine. The risk-taker is ushering his company, Mark Development, into a first-time venture. He’s investing big dollars toward reinventing this defunct coal mine as a retail center complete with a hotel and an outdoor amphitheater – all accessible to visitors by train.

The entrepreneur expects to start building in about 5 years. It will take that long to fill such a gargantuan hole with 10 million to 15 million cubic yards of mixed byproducts. In September, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection granted Rinaldi’s company permission to use a combination of coal ash, cement kiln dust, lime kiln dust and dredge material.

“The connotation of these materials as waste needs to change,” project consultant Mike McClellan explained during a presentation at the Byproducts Beneficial Use Summit held Nov. 29-30 in Philadelphia.

McClellan, president of Evergreen Environmental Inc., is aware the project has detractors who claim certain materials belong in landfills because they can be environmental and health hazards. But McClellan lauded the Pennsylvania DEP for propelling the Hazleton project forward by acting in 2004 to make coal ash, cement kiln dust, and lime kiln dust and dredge material acceptable statewide for use in mine reclamation. He emphasized that the state is seven years away from maxing out its landfills and lacks the money to restore its 250,000 acres of abandoned mines single-handedly.

“This is not just an environmental project,” McClellan said. “At its core, this is an economic development project. And the beauty of it is that it’s a public-private partnership. Taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay for what a company did in 1950.”

Three key ingredients – a can-do mayor, a willing private investor and a progressive regulatory agency – helped to launch the Hazleton project, McClellan said. The price tag could ring in at $50 million, he said.

Under the name Hazleton Creek Properties, Mark Development is leasing the 300-acre site from a newly formed public entity, the Hazleton Redevelopment Authority.

Mayor Louis Barletta is intent on changing the direction of down-on-its-luck, Hazleton, a hardscrabble city of about 25,000 near where Interstates 80 and 81 cross. Right now, its most abundant export is young people in search of employment.

Barletta wants the gateway to his city to be a job magnet instead of a giant scar with vertical pits up to 150 feet deep and tunnels 600 feet below the surface. Mining ceased in the 1960’s, before legislation was adopted making companies liable for cleanup. Later the site became a municipal landfill and a dumping ground for toxic soup of industrial waste.

In addition to filling the hole over the next 5 years, contractors will cap the landfills, restore a creek and wetlands, and halt “acid mine drainage” by keeping surface water out of the pit. Rinaldi and McClellan are installing an on-site laboratory to monitor groundwater. They have vowed to share all test results with the city.

“We’re building a rapport with the community,” McClellan said. “Independent oversight is vital and transparency is key.”

Dredged material from harbors and rivers in Baltimore, New Jersey, New York, and Philadelphia will be carted to the site in rail cars. As part of the deal, the city will receive $1 for every cubic yard of dredge. The mayor has earmarked those funds for police and fire protection. After the dredge is hauled in, the railroad tracks will carry commuters, shoppers, and tourists.

“These are people who have a vision,” McClellan said. “They’re taking a liability and turning it into an opportunity.”