CHESTER - In the run-up to Thursday's public hearing on the proposed closure of Little Blue Run, environmental groups are touting what they say is more evidence from the federal government that the coal ash impoundment is a threat to public health.
The Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Integrity Project (EIP), which has been working with the local Little Blue Regional Action Group, said the Environmental Protection Agency has confirmed its contention that Little Blue Run has polluted water in Hancock County through the leaching of chemicals from coal ash waste.
Little Blue Run, a FirstEnergy Generation Corp. impoundment that straddles the West Virginia-Pennsylvania line, is on the EPA's list of 18 "proven damage cases" where coal ash residuals have been shown to contaminate local groundwater, EIP Director Eric Schaeffer said. About 40 percent of the 1,300-acre impoundment lies in Hancock County.
"We applaud EPA for confirming instances of coal ash water pollution," Schaeffer said, "but federal rules that require common sense safeguards to monitor, prevent and clean up leaking coal ash dumps are critical and long overdue."
Environmental groups want the EPA to promulgate rules, under consideration since 2010, that would classify coal ash byproducts as a hazardous waste and regulate it as such. But utilities such as FirstEnergy have been calling for legislation that treats coal ash as non-hazardous waste that can be recycled and reused in the construction industry.
The battle over coal ash regulation reached the floor of Congress last month when U.S. Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., whose district includes Hancock County, successfully pushed through a bill that would keep states as the chief regulatory authority for coal ash.
Schaeffer said the latest EPA report proves the need for federal rules, and supports environmentalists' contention that states, including Pennsylvania and West Virginia, have been taking a "see no evil" approach to the regulation of coal ash impoundments such as Little Blue Run.
"Now that our reports have been confirmed by the EPA, it leaves us wondering just how reliable the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection's policies on coal ash really are," said Lisa Graves Marcucci, Pennsylvania community outreach coordinator for EIP.
Marcucci said state environmental agencies such as PDEP are "not up to the enforcement task" necessary for proper coal ash disposal.
But FirstEnergy spokeswoman Stephanie Thornton said EPA's Notice of Data Availability provides nothing new and simply republishes existing information. "Little Blue Run is in full compliance with all applicable environmental requirements," Thornton said. "Any past challenges at the facility have been fully addressed in cooperation with the state of Pennsylvania."
Little Blue Run has been used by FirstEnergy for the disposal of coal ash waste from the Bruce Mansfield Plant, in nearby Shippingport, Pa., since the mid-1970s. Scrubbers at the coal-fired power plant remove sulfur dioxide from coal emissions, and the scrubber material is thickened into a slurry that is sent to Little Blue Run via a seven-mile, underground pipeline.
Monitoring by FirstEnergy and PDEP over the years has revealed degradation of nearby groundwater that can be traced to the unlined impoundment, said PDEP spokesman John Poister. In 2012, FirstEnergy reached a consent decree with PDEP that will result in the closure of Little Blue Run by the end of 2016.
At 6 p.m. Thursday, PDEP will hold an open house on the closure plans at the Hookstown Volunteer Fire Department, 120 Silver Slipper Road. The open house will be followed at 7 p.m. by a public hearing on FirstEnergy's proposed revision of its Solid Waste Management permit for the impoundment.
During the open house, FirstEnergy officials will describe the proposed closure plan, and PDEP's Waste Management staff will explain the permitting process. At the public hearing, residents will have the opportunity to present formal testimony. Those wishing to testify must pre-register or sign up at the door on the night of the hearing.
For those unable to attend the hearing, written comment on the closure plan may be sent to: Michael Forbeck, Regional Manager, Department of Environmental Protection, 400 Waterfront Drive, Pittsburgh, PA 15220. Deadline for written comments is Sept. 16.