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Burning rubber: residents fight power plant planning to burn tires for cryptocurrency

Linda Christman, President of Save Carbon County, speaks against Panther Creek's request to burn tires to power their cryptocurrency mining operation.
Isabela Weiss | WVIA News | Report for America
Linda Christman, president of Save Carbon County, speaks against Panther Creek's request to burn tires to power their cryptocurrency mining operation.

While residents struggle against a proposed tire burning operation, the DEP, according to their own public records, failed to document half of the applicant’s air quality violations in their review.

Residents criticized the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) for considering permitting a power plant to burn tires to generate electricity for cryptocurrency mining. At a DEP hearing on Dec. 18, residents denounced the power plant for exposing them to harmful chemicals like benzene and dioxins. Both chemicals are highly toxic to humans and animals and can cause cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute and the World Health Organization.

The power plant, Panther Creek Electric Generating Facility, applied to the DEP for a permit to supplement up to 15 percent weight of its monthly electricity with tire-derived fuel (TDF). If permitted, Panther Creek will burn scrap tires along with waste coal, or culm at its plant in Nesquehoning, PA.

Residents at the Dec. meeting cited eight publicized air quality violations that can be found on DEP’s website from the project application. Those violations, including seven violations from Scrubgrass Plant, which is owned by the same parent company, Stronghold Digital Mining, total to 15 air quality violations since 2018.

However, Panther Creek alone has had 15 air quality violations since 2018. Thirteen of those violations are for not doing air quality tests. DEP’s files, which are available to the public but are not found on the application page, show that Panther Creek has eleven unresolved air quality violations. The first dates back to Oct. 2018.

Steve Welsh, a Carbon County resident, admonished Panther Creek and DEP for endangering residents for multi-millionaires’ benefit.

“We’re fighting for clean air, they’re earning a paycheck. At the town council meeting, I wanted to lean into the point that we are having this conversation for the glory of mining bitcoin. This is an electrically wasteful process that enriches a few to the detriment of our communities,” said Welsh.

Cryptocurrency mining takes a lot of computer power and is taxing on the environment, according to The White House. As of Aug. 2022, they estimate that crypto-assets cost between 120 and 240 billion kilowatt-hours per year. That’s more electricity than Argentina or Australia consumes in a year. According to Fidelity Investments, crypto miners compete for digital currency by using high-tech computers to solve mathematical puzzles in ‘block chains.’

Several members from Save Carbon County, an environmental advocacy group, spoke at the hearing. President Linda Christman criticized Panther Creek’s TDF-testing operations. DEP allowed Panther Creek to temporarily burn tires for the past year, according to Christman.

“During that time, the emissions from this plant increased by over 200 percent,” said Christman. “During the year-long test period, [the plant completed] no monitoring of heavy metals, nor of benzene, nor monitoring of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. In other words, the most toxic pollutants emitted by burning tires were ignored.”

Christman also questioned the DEP’s review process. She argued that the DEP inadvertently limited public comment by holding the hearing during the holiday season. She also asked DEP to move the final date for public comment by a month to give residents more time to review documents and to ask questions. The comment period ends on Dec. 28.

Several posters in protest of the tire-burning proposal lined the outside of the meeting hall on Dec. 18.
Isabela Weiss | WVIA News | Report for America
Several posters in protest of the tire-burning proposal lined the outside of the meeting hall on Dec. 18.

One borough official spoke on behalf of residents at the hearing. John McArdle is Nesquehoning Hose Company’s fire chief and the borough’s emergency coordinator and fire marshal. He was concerned how the plant would contain unintentional tire fires.

“It would take copious amounts of water should any type of piles of tires start to burn. [It] would also require Class B foam. We’d have to separate the shredded tires. And eventually, the only other option would be to dig a hole and bury it to put the fire out,” said McArdle.

Class B foam is used to stop chemical fires. It contains PFAS, also known as forever chemicals, which are toxic to humans and the environment, according to the PA Department of Health.

The Nesquehoning Creek borders the plant and McArdle worries that it will be contaminated or drained to fight unintentional tire fires.

Scrubgrass Plant, Panther Creek’s sister plant, has three counts of residual waste violations filed on the same day in July 2023. Those counts range from unlawful management of residual waste, unlawful waste dumping, and failure to maintain waste storage facilities. Those violations are also not included in the application document on DEP’s website, which was filed in June 2023.

Ben Price, national organizer for the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, criticized DEP’s willingness to permit organizations with multiple environmental violations to expand operations. He spoke on behalf of Save Carbon County.

“I say this not derogatorily, but the popular term for the DEP is the ‘Department of Everything Permitted,’” said Price. “Permits are issued. And they have that word, ‘permit,’ attached to them because what they do is they permit things to happen that would be illegal if they didn’t have the permit.”

He argued that DEP was willingly endangering the residents of Carbon County.

“That’s a problem. Because it affects people in their communities. And I don’t mean just here in Nesquehoning, or Panther Valley, Carbon County. It’s happening across Pennsylvania,” said Price. “We have over 12,000 second-class townships in Pennsylvania. Rural communities that have very little political clout to protect themselves, their rights, their health, their safety, their children's and future generations.”

WVIA News contacted the DEP about the discrepancy in their violations reporting. They responded that they were unable to answer WVIA News’ questions at this time.

As of late Dec., Panther Creek has eleven unresolved air quality violations from the DEP. The DEP has not publicized all of Panther Creek’s violations on their project application page. The public comment period ends on Dec. 28.

Isabela Weiss is a storyteller turned reporter from Athens, GA. She is WVIA News's Rural Government Reporter and a Report for America corps member. Weiss lives in Wilkes-Barre with her fabulous cats, Boo and Lorelai.

You can email Isabella at isabelaweiss@wvia.org