PA Enviro Groups File Appeal for Urgent Removal of Hazardous Coal Ash ‘Mountain’ at Scrubgrass Crypto Facility

Massive unauthorized coal ash 'mountain,' growing for years; PA Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) granted cryptomining polluter Scrubgrass a 4-year leash: toxic coal ash waste allowed to persist


On Friday, Earthjustice, on behalf of Scrubgrass Creek Watershed Association and Citizens for Pennsylvania’s Future (PennFuture), filed an appeal to the Pennsylvania Environmental Hearing Board to overturn or modify the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s (PA DEP) decision to allow the Scrubgrass cryptomining power plant a four-year delay to remove its unpermitted coal ash pile situated near the Allegheny River. Initially detected during a PA DEP site inspection, the coal ash mountain has surpassed the approved size, enveloping parts of the surrounding area. The existing agreement between Scrubgrass and the PA DEP falls short in safeguarding against the plant’s mountain of toxic coal ash which threatens to pollute groundwater. It also lacks provisions for immediate interim measures to alleviate and prevent future contamination. The notice of appeal filed by Earthjustice at the Pennsylvania Environmental Hearing Board on December 15, 2023 seeks faster removal of the waste and seeks protective measures.

The notice of appeal states that the DEP’s consent order and agreement with Scrubgrass fails to include protections required under the PA Solid Waste Management Act and the federal Coal Combustion Residuals (CCR) Rule. The agreement specifically fails to address standards related to run-on and run-off controls, inspections, groundwater monitoring, corrective action, and, more broadly, Scrubgrass’ obligation to address practices that “pose a reasonable probability of adverse effects on health or the environment.”

The Scrubgrass Power Plant, owned by cryptocurrency mining company Stronghold Digital Mining, Inc., uses waste coal to fuel its operations, which results in large quantities of coal ash. In 2022, DEP inspections documented an enormous, unpermitted coal ash waste pile at the Scrubgrass plant that violates state and federal law. The unauthorized coal ash waste pile at Scrubgrass is one of many negative environmental practices at plants owned by Stronghold, which has repeatedly made claims about its operations as part of the company’s ongoing greenwashing effort.

“DEP must require the immediate removal of this coal ash mountain,” said Charles McPhedran, Senior Attorney with Earthjustice. “DEP must also require Scrubgrass to take steps to prevent contamination from this mountain from spreading.”

“Coal ash poses serious risk for surface water, groundwater, human health, and the environment. The escalating problem of coal ash at Scrubgrass shows that Stronghold’s efforts at greenwashing are superficial at best. The DEP must demand the immediate removal of this unauthorized and uncontained ‘mountain,’ not give the cryptomining site years. Cryptomining companies cannot be allowed to ignore the environmental impacts of their operations and shift those costs to the people,” said Emma Bast, Staff Attorney, PennFuture.

“This coal ash mountain threatens to pollute the Federally designated Wild and Scenic Allegheny River corridor. Anything short of an immediate removal of this harmful ash mountain disregards the likely damage already inflicted, potentially contaminating groundwater and dispersing dust through the air,” said Tom Thomas of the Scrubgrass Creek Watershed Association.

Despite the negative effect of fossil fuel burning on our climate, Stronghold has repeatedly positioned itself as “actively improving the environment.” The company’s website states that Stronghold’s waste coal burning is “environmentally beneficial” and helps reduce waste in the state, though data from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) shows the Scrubgrass plant generated over 500,000 metric tons of CO2 in 2022more emissions than 100,000 cars over the course of an entire year. The company also boasts that its generation facilities “remove mining waste and convert it into electricity,” and is “actively improving the environment,” the company itself has “discarded in mountainous piles” coal ash, as was found by DEP at the Scrubgrass plant.

Coal ash is the waste leftover from burned waste coal, containing a toxic mix of carcinogens, neurotoxins, and hazardous materials linked to health issues including cancer, heart and thyroid disease, reproductive failure, and neurological harm. In November, the EPA published a draft risk assessment stating that the health risks caused by radioactivity from coal ash are much greater than previously estimated.

In response, Earthjustice signed a letter alongside more than 150 other public interest groups that urged the agency to “protect the health of vulnerable communities nationwide from dangerous placement of toxic coal ash” and ban the widespread use of toxic coal ash in place of soil for construction and landscaping projects in residential areas.

Racks of computers in a shed.
Equipment owned by Stronghold Digital Mining, Inc., used to mine cryptocurrencies and powered by the Scrubgrass Generating Plant near Kennerdell, Pennsylvania, in Venango County.

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