Permit issued mandating closure of Little Blue Run

CHESTER-The commonwealth of Pennsylvania has issued a permit to FirstEnergy Generation that mandates the closing of the Little Blue Run coal ash impoundment by 2028, three years earlier than proposed by the utility.

FirstEnergy must end disposal of coal ash waste into the impoundment, which sits partly in Hancock County, by Dec. 31, 2016, and will begin capping activities in some areas in 2015, according to a permit issued by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

The issuance of the state permit is a long-awaited step in a process that ultimately will result in the closing of the controversial waste disposal site.

“The process to close the largest coal combustion waste disposal impoundment in the country was strenuous and thorough, involving citizens, who provided numerous comments, DEP staff and FirstEnergy,” said Mike Forbeck, waste management program manger for DEP’s Southwest Region.

FirstEnergy has been using the impoundment, which straddles the West Virginia-Pennsylvania line, since the mid-1970s for the disposal of coal ash byproduct material from the coal-fired Bruce Mansfield Plant in Shippingport, Pa. The 976-acre impoundment sits on 1,700 acres owned by FirstEnergy.

Coal ash waste results when scrubber technology is used to remove sulfur dioxide from coal emissions. The coal ash is mixed with lime and other materials, thickened into a slurry and sent through a seven-mile, underground pipeline to the unlined impoundment, where it is stored for an indefinite period of time.

Over the years, neighbors of Little Blue Run have complained of adverse health effects that they attribute to the seepage of toxic chemicals into the groundwater surrounding the impoundment-seepage that has been documented by the Pennsylvania DEP and monitoring stations installed by FirstEnergy.

In October 2013, residents of Lawrenceville in Hancock County and Greene Township in Beaver County, Pa., filed suit against FirstEnergy, claiming that their properties had been permanently damaged and devalued as a result of groundwater contamination from Little Blue Run.

The closure permit issued by the DEP comes about a year after FirstEnergy issued its closure plan-pursuant to a legal agreement, known as a consent decree, reached between the state and the utility in July 2012 and approved by a judge in December 2012.

FirstEnergy is under order from the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania to end disposal of waste in Little Blue Run by the end of 2016, to monitor groundwater seeps in the vicinity and to remediate any contaminated groundwater.

The closure permit requires FirstEnergy to increase the groundwater and surface water monitoring points from 74 to more than 300, said DEP spokesman John Poister.

The permit also requires FirstEnergy to implement controls for noise, odors and particulate emissions; conduct quarterly seep reconnaissance; institute corrective actions when contaminated seeps are found; pursue groundwater remediation measures; and conduct post-closure monitoring and maintenance for as long as environmental problems remain at the site, Poister said.

Monitoring activities at the site began to pick up changes in the groundwater in 2010 and 2011, and the closure permit approves specific measures to address the contamination. Sulfates, sodium, calcium, magnesium, chloride and arsenic in varying amounts have been detected in the groundwater near the impoundment, Poister said.

The permit requires FirstEnergy to complete all work associated with closing Little Blue Run by Dec. 31, 2028-12 years after FirstEnergy has stopped disposing of coal ash waste in the impoundment.

“DEP wanted the closure to be complete as soon as practicable in order to restore the area,” said DEP spokeswoman Morgan Wagner.

Closing the impoundment will require FirstEnergy to install an impermeable geomembrane liner over the waste, then a cushion geotextile layer to protect the liner, then a one-foot-thick layer of soil and a vegetative cover, according to the permit.

FirstEnergy has posted a financial assurance bond of more than $169 million, the largest bond for a waste management facility ever required by DEP, to ensure that all work is properly completed, Poister said. Funds will be held by DEP until no further post-closure activities or monitoring are needed for the site.

FirstEnergy spokeswoman Stephanie Walton declined comment on the closure permit, saying it is under review by the company, but said, “The company is committed to closing Little Blue Run in a safe and environmentally sound manner, in compliance with the Pennsylvania DEP closure permit.”

Lisa Graves Marcucci, Pennsylvania coordinator for community outreach for the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Integrity Project, also declined comment but commended the state DEP and community activists for their involvement.

“The lead-up to this was the community (Little Blue Regional Action Group) bringing notice of a letter of intent to sue (FirstEnergy in May 2012). That was the impetus that changed the trajectory of this discussion,” Marcucci said. “Another was the state of Pennsylvania stepping in and seeking the enforcement that had been lacking for several decades.”

The state DEP originally issued a permit for the impoundment in July 1974.