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The Insanity of Pennsylvania Coal Ash


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27 November 2013, 8:25 AM
How is coal ash dumped at one site hazardous, but beneficial at another?
A portion of the Little Blue Run coal ash impoundment. October 2011.
(© Bob Donnan)

One of the nation’s largest coal ash dumps spans two states (West Virginia and Pennsylvania) and borders a third (Ohio). It is 30 times larger than the Tennessee Valley Authority coal ash pond at the Kingston Fossil Plant which burst in 2008.

The Little Blue Run coal ash impoundment has poisoned nearby waters with arsenic, selenium, boron and more. Residents tell of murky sludge oozing from the ground around their homes.

Russ Maddox.

In the third installment of our series leading up to the 5-year anniversary of the coal ash spill in Kingston, TN, we travel to Pennsylvania to hear from Lisa Graves-Marcucci, a community outreach coordinator with the Environmental Integrity Project, and the work being done to clean up the pollution at Little Blue.

Albert Einstein defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

In the absence of federal rules, states are making decisions about how coal ash is disposed. And some state decisions defy logic, such as in the case of the Little Blue Run coal ash impoundment. This massive, unlined, nearly 3-square-mile monstrosity has damaged local communities and contaminated water sources in Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

After years of turning a blind eye to this pollution, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection finally stepped in to enforce the laws in response to a notice of intent to sue letter filed by the Environmental Integrity Project and Public Justice, on behalf of the Little Blue Regional Action Group. As a result, a federal court has approved a consent decree that requires cleanup and closure of Little Blue Run. The legal filings acknowledge the damage, reference a contaminated plume of groundwater and note “that groundwater degradation has occurred at the impoundment and will exist at closure and thereafter.”

So, why does the local community’s recent victory feel as though it’s about to become a defeat?  And, how is it possible that coal ash in the unlined Little Blue Run site has been deemed dangerous, but the state is actually considering allowing this same ash to be dumped in other unlined sites in western Pennsylvania? In other words, why is the environmental agency contemplating doing the same thing again, expecting a different outcome?

Earlier this year, FirstEnergy announced plans for dumping the coal ash generated at the Bruce Mansfield plant, beginning in 2017 after the impoundment is closed. FirstEnergy proposes the ash, once dumped at Little Blue Run, will be loaded on barges, traverse 90 miles of the Ohio and Monongahela Rivers—uncovered along two major drinking water and recreational sources—and dumped in an unlined mine site in LaBelle, Fayette County, PA. In January, the Pittsburgh Post Gazette reported that, “because coal ash is not classified as a hazardous material, its transport on the rivers is not regulated by the Coast Guard. She [Lt. Junior Grade Alyssa McDonald of the U.S. Coast Guard's boat operation and law enforcement division in Pittsburgh] also said there are no requirements that the ash be transported in covered barges to prevent it from blowing into the rivers and river banks.”

Why on earth would the same ash deemed dangerous in one community be considered safe for any other? And, most importantly, why would the state of Pennsylvania or any other state even consider this ill-conceived proposal? The answer is that despite the pollution and destruction, there are still no federal rules to ensure safe disposal of coal ash.

Because there are no federal regulations, states continue to hold a cavalier attitude about coal ash and its propensity to harm communities and the environment. Without federal rules in place, power plants will continue to dump millions of tons of coal ash into unlined and leaky pits—and into our drinking water; and the health of our watersheds will remain in harm’s way.

We need to stop this insanity. Americans have waited long enough for the federal rules that were promised in the wake of the TVA Kingston coal ash disaster. It’s been 5 years since that horrible tragedy and yet common sense safeguards are still not in place.

The mounting evidence of damage cases like Little Blue Run can no longer be ignored: coal ash is dangerous and has caused widespread water pollution across the United States. It contains toxic metals that leak and seep into our groundwater, rivers, lakes, and streams and create havoc for decades after disposal stops. We need decision makers at all levels—the White House, Office of Management and Budget, Congress, and the Environmental Protection Agency— to listen to the facts and not the political rhetoric by industry lobbyists and their supporters. There is no excuse for further delay. We need common sense protections in place now.

Health protections are the priority. It’s long overdue that Congress step aside and let the EPA do its job and finalize the coal ash rule. Our health matters and time is of the essence.

If you missed it, read part one of this blog series, "No EPA Progress on Anniversary of Coal Ash Disaster", and an opinion piece from Russ Maddox on the impacts of coal mined in Alaska and burned at Alaskan power plants in part two.

Learn more about coal ash in an interactive infographic:

The Coal Ash Problem, presented by Earthjustice.

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