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Experts: South Park coal seam unlikely to attract big companies

Thursday, Sept. 26, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

The amount of coal Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald guessed is beneath South Park would keep a major coal company busy for an afternoon, experts say.

A depressed coal market could make the venture less attractive to mining companies chasing profits, industry consultants said.

“I'm not sure you would find many takers, and if you did, it would be smaller companies,” said Thomas Hoffman, president of Carbon Communications Consultants of Upper St. Clair. “It's not the kind of project that a Consol (Energy) or an Alpha Natural Resources would be interested in.”

Any plan to mine a possible five-foot seam of coal under the park's oval area — the site of the former fairgrounds — is preliminary, said Amie Downs, a spokeswoman for the county, and officials acknowledged they're not certain there's enough coal to make a strip-mining operation worthwhile.

“We're exploring,” Downs said.

Fitzgerald talked about the possibility of mining coal under South Park when a council member asked about it following his quarterly address to County Council on Tuesday. Fitzgerald said a seam of coal worth $3 million is under the park and the county would seek proposals from mining companies.

Downs said Wednesday the county does not know how much coal is there, its worth or the depth of the coal seam. Officials haven't decided whether issuing a request for proposals to mine makes economic sense, Downs said.

Council Vice President Nicholas Futules, D-Oakmont, chair of the parks committee, called the proposal “nuts” and “stupid.” He said mining operations in the county's Settler's Cabin Park turned a wooded corner of the park into something that “looks like the Grand Canyon.” He cannot picture mining in the middle of football and soccer fields.

“What are you supposed to tell all the kids playing football and soccer there, ‘Sorry, kids, we're going to coal mine this'?” Futules said. “I don't see disrupting the park for $3 million as worth it. The risk outweighs the income.”

If coal beneath the park is worth $3 million, Hoffman estimated that would translate into about 50,000 tons.

“They'll mine that much coal in an afternoon at some of these big mines,” he said.

Smaller companies might be interested, but only if the coal lies near the surface. In the current market — estimated between $60 and $65 a ton, consultants said — companies would hesitate to dig deep, said Ron Lewis, chief operating officer at John T. Boyd, a mining consulting company in Canonsburg.

“The question is what depth of cover is there, and that affects the economics,” Lewis said. “It would be surprising that a company would consider mining at any depth greater than 150 feet.”

Lewis and Hoffman said coal in that area of the county often lies hundreds of feet below surface. Lewis questioned whether any significant amount of the thick Pittsburgh Seam exists, since much of it has been mined.

Fitzgerald learned of the possibility of coal under South Park during meetings for a $3.6 million renovation of the former fairgrounds, Downs said. The county is interested if a company could mine in coordination with the rehabilitation project and if the county could profit without putting the park at risk.

Fitzgerald presented the possibility of mining to Friends of South Park this summer. The volunteer group, which raises money and completes small projects, told Fitzgerald they're interested in exploring the possibility, said chairman Dave Buchewicz.

“All we did was say ‘Get the request for proposal, find out what's there, how much is there and what the risks and rewards are,' ” Buchewicz said. “I'm optimistic about it, but I'm cautious about it.”

Aaron Aupperlee is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7986 or

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