Utility floats dangerous plan to barge toxic coal ash
Mississippi River at Vicksburg closed after barge hit railroad bridge and began leaking oil. (Photo: WLBT)
Utility giant FirstEnergy Corp unveiled plans last week to barge 3 million tons of coal ash annually nearly 100 miles on the Monongahela and Ohio rivers for disposal in an unlined pit in LaBelle, PA. The ash comes from its Bruce Mansfield Power Station—one of the largest coal burning power plants in the U.S.
There's not a thing right about this scheme, according to residents who take their drinking water from the river. Also unhappy are citizens of LaBelle, PA, whose water and air are already poisoned by nearly 15 years of coal ash dumping.
FirstEnergy Corp.’s announcement followed the lodging of a consent decree requiring payment of $800,000 for violations of environmental laws and the closure of its lethal and leaking Little Blue Run Impoundment—an immense toxic crater of coal ash spanning 1,300 acres, held back by a 40-story dam above the Ohio River. The Commonwealth required closure of the unlined impoundment after it poisoned drinking water and inundated properties of West Virginia residents with arsenic, selenium and other hazardous chemicals.
The Ohio and Monongahela rivers are drinking water sources for hundreds of thousands. Because coal ash is not classified as “hazardous,” the U.S. Coast Guard does not regulate its transport and imposes no requirements to cover the coal ash and prevent its escape into the water and onto homes along the rivers.
The anticipated final destination is an abandoned mine pit in Fayette County, where toxic waste from the Mitchell Power Plant has been dumped since 1999. This dumping has already covered homes in Labelle in hazardous dust. LaBelle residents fear that an increase in illnesses, including cancer, in their community, is caused by coal ash in their air and water.
Why would the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection or the EPA allow toxic coal ash to be dumped without a liner again and without precautions to prevent toxic dust? The ruse pursued by FirstEnergy Corp. is that dumping coal ash in the unlined mine pit is a “beneficial” use and therefore exempt from such safety requirements. Never mind that the same coal ash poisoned water with arsenic at Little Blue or that the air in LaBelle is already unhealthy.
In a better world, EPA coal ash rules would prevent this perilous plot and ensure that all communities are protected from such dangerous schemes. But without federal rules, FirstEnergy Corp. and other utilities find the least expensive ways to dump, no matter how reckless. At site after site, decisions driven by economics disregard the health of communities unfortunate enough to be in harm’s way.