CHESTER-FirstEnergy must close the nearby Little Blue Run impoundment where it has been disposing of waste material for nearly 40 years by the end of 2016, according to an agreement between the utility company and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.
A consent decree filed late Friday in U.S. District Court mandates that FirstEnergy close the disposal facility, devise a plan to clean up contaminated groundwater surrounding the impoundment, and pay a penalty of $800,000 to the department.
Even though closure is four years away, Pennsylvania's complaint against FirstEnergy closes a chapter in the ongoing dispute between the utility and nearby residents who say the disposal of coal ash has polluted the groundwater and ruined their property values.
Posted signs warn people away from a FirstEnergy pumping station on Johnsonville Road, installed to catch seepage from the Little Blue Run impoundment. Four such stations have been built in response to complaints that groundwater is being contaminated by FirstEnergy’s coal ash disposal practices. (Photo by Stephen Huba)
Curtis Havens, vice president of the Little Blue Regional Action Group and a frequent critic of FirstEnergy's disposal practices, said he is "partly satisfied" with the consent decree.
"Part of the burden has lifted, but there's still a burden there," Havens said. "There are still people in this area ... who want FirstEnergy to buy them out because of the contamination (of groundwater)."
A retired postal worker, Havens and his wife, Debbie, moved to their Pyramus Road home about a year before the impoundment opened. They now live 1,200 feet from Little Blue Run. In the last two years, they and other residents of Lawrenceville have complained of offensive odors, an increase in mosquitoes, and potential drinking water and health problems as a result of FirstEnergy's continuing use of Little Blue Run for the disposal of coal ash.
"We're still going to be watching them to make sure they're doing what they're supposed to be doing- not contaminating the water and air anymore," Havens said.
FirstEnergy has used Little Blue Run since 1974 as a disposal facility for scrubber material-coal ash-from the Bruce Mansfield Plant, a coal-fired power plant in Shippingport, Pa. The flue-gas scrubbers and other air pollution controls at the plant generate waste material, some of which is thickened into a slurry and sent through a seven-mile pipeline to Little Blue Run.
Over the years, the coal ash waste material has accumulated, and the size of the lake has grown. It currently covers about 1,700 acres, straddling the Pennsylvania-West Virginia Line. About 40 percent of the impoundment is in Hancock County, just east of Chester.
Among Lawrenceville residents' chief concerns is the fact that Little Blue Run is unlined and may be leaking contaminants. State and federal regulations in the mid-1970s did not require such facilities to be lined.
According to Friday's complaint, "The absence of a liner in the disposal area creates a potential for contaminants from the waste to move into groundwater and surface waters near the impoundment. ..."
The complaint goes on to say that calcium, sulfates, chlorides and "other groundwater constituents found at certain locations near the impoundment indicate that contaminants from the solid waste within the impoundment are entering groundwater at such locations."
What's more, the complaint states that certain locations near Little Blue Run "indicate the presence of arsenic in the groundwater," which could pose a threat to human health.
The complaint charges FirstEnergy with violations of the Pennsylvania Solid Waste Management Act, including failing "to conduct required groundwater assessment and abatement actions" regarding at least five instances of seepage in the vicinity of Little Blue Run.
FirstEnergy spokesman Mark Durbin said the consent decree puts a date on a process of closure that already had begun. "We've previously stated that Little Blue Run would reach its permitted capacity between 2016 and 2018," he said. "Whatever the Department of Environmental Protection wants us to do, we're going to do that."
Durbin said FirstEnergy is in the midst of plans to open a new, smaller disposal facility adjacent to Little Blue Run-one that will have a "double liner system, a leachate collection system and other state-of-the-art technology."
FirstEnergy must submit its closure plan to the state department by March 31, 2013. The last date in which wet scrubber material can be placed in Little Blue run is Dec. 31, 2016, Durbin said.
Environmental groups, including one that filed a notice of intent to sue FirstEnergy in May, hailed the consent decree as a landmark.
"We believe this is the first time ... any regulator has formally recognized that ... coal ash ponds like Little Blue Run release pollutants that may present an imminent and substantial endangerment to nearby residents and the environment," said Lisa Widawsky Hallowell, an attorney for the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Integrity Project.