—Steve and Annette Rhodes, in The Hill
Coal ash is the hazardous waste full of toxic metals that remains after coal is burned. The Little Blue Run coal ash impoundment, built in 1975, is the largest unlined coal ash pond in the United States, spanning two states and bordering a third. On the West Virginia side of the impoundment, the grounds of homes are inundated with coal ash-contaminated water. Coal ash is the second largest industrial waste stream in America and is essentially unregulated.
Curt Havens, Sharon Fineman, Debbie Havens (left to right) stand with photos documenting damage to their Chester, WV neighborhood from the Little Blue Run coal ash impoundment.
The Little Blue Run coal ash pond is the largest in the nation, spanning two states (West Virginia and Pennsylvania) and bordering a third (Ohio).
The impoundment covers approximately 3-square miles and is held back by a 40-story, 2,200-foot long rock-and-earth "high hazard" earthen dam, the tallest of its kind in the United States.
Little Blue Run is owned by FirstEnergy Generation Corp., which operates the Bruce Mansfield Power Station in Beaver County, PA. Coal ash generated at the coal-fired power plant is dumped into Little Blue Run through a 7-mile pipeline.
Residents of Chester, WV, on the western side of the impoundment, live with gushing leaks of contaminated water—leaks that culminate in a discharge clocked at a maximum of 775 gallons per minute, a volume greater than the combined flow from seven fire truck hoses.
While FirstEnergy disputes any contamination of drinking water as a result of the leaking impoundment, several residents say otherwise. Tests of their drinking water found that there were high amounts of arsenic, as well as high levels of thallium, manganese, iron and aluminum.
A portion of the nearly 3-square mile Little Blue Run coal ash impoundment. The striking blue color results from chemicals suspended in the coal ash pond.
The Little Blue Run pond is 30 times larger than the Tennessee Valley Authority coal ash pond at the Kingston Fossil Plant, which burst on December 22, 2008 and flooded 300 acres with one billion gallons of toxic sludge.
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection estimates that a failure of Little Blue Run's 40-story dam would take the lives of 50,000 people.
Coal ash contains metals like arsenic and mercury that can pose serious health threats, including increased risk of cancer.
In the background, smoke can be seen from the Bruce Mansfield coal-fired power plant—where the coal ash is generated and then dumped into the impoundment through a 7-mile pipeline.
Over 100 million tons of coal ash have already been disposed of into the pond.
Visible in the foreground are white sausage-like "Geo-Tubes," tubes stuffed with coal ash and then stacked at the impoundment.
View of a West Virginian farm located adjacent to the Little Blue Run coal ash impoundment.
This farm dates back to the 1800's. Much of the land near Little Blue Run is (or was previously) beautiful farmland—many of them were owned and operated by generational farmers.
Much of the farmland has been impacted and/or lost.
Chester, WV residents Tonya and Bill Wiseman stand in front of a pumping station installed by FirstEnergy in an attempt to stop polluted water from discharging from Little Blue Run into their neighborhood.
The pumping station has not solved the problem—water is still discharging—and has turned their quiet rural neighborhood into an industrial zone.
A barrier adjacent to the pumping station is another attempt to stave off polluted water discharges into the Wisemans' neighborhood and into the catch basins.
According to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, arsenic from the impoundment has been migrating into Marks Run, a local stream.
Annette and Steve Rhodes live in the family home where Steve grew up. They worry that this part of their family history could be lost due to the pollution from Little Blue Run.
The Rhodes described the stark and unfortunate reality of living near a toxic coal ash dump in a May 2012 piece in The Hill:
"Both state agencies [West Virginia and Pennsylvania DEP] approved a so-called 'remedy' that collects the toxic water and pumps it back into the 1,000-acre, unlined dump. The toxic water then just leaks back out and continues to gush into our neighborhood, into streams and the Ohio River …
"We're at the mercy of state environmental agencies that have done a woefully inadequate job protecting us."
Deedy Hebrock, with her grandchildren.
In a Jan. 2012 letter to the editor, Hebrock wrote: "I have lived my entire life in the Lawrenceville-Johnsonville area. As a child I can remember picking blackberries for my mother to make us homemade blackberry pie, living on watermelon, tomatoes, cucumbers, squash and corn on the cob in the summer.
"The beautiful woods behind our house no longer exist. Due to the continuing saturation of the ground. The roots of the trees have died and have totally uprooted. There are no longer blackberries for pies or even the consideration of having a garden. The impoundment has ruined our property."
One section of the nearly 3-square miles of the Little Blue Run coal ash impoundment
Coal combustion waste sites are known to have contaminated groundwater, wetlands, creeks, or rivers. These could easily have been prevented with sensible safeguards such as phasing out leak-prone ash ponds and requiring the use of synthetic liners and leachate collection systems.
Yet, incredibly, ash and other coal combustion wastes are not subject to federal regulations that require these simple safeguards.
Sharon Fineman and her husband Rich have damage to their property due to unauthorized discharges from Little Blue Run.
In an Aug. 2011 letter to the editor, Fineman wrote: "This disposal site affects all of us, affects our health, our property, our property values, our livelihood, our children and our grandchildren."
Cid and her husband Alan Neverly also live in the Lawrenceville neighborhood of Chester, WV.
In an Oct. 2011 letter to the editor regarding Rep. David McKinley (R-WV)'s introduction of H.R. 2273, legislation which sought to undermine the first-ever federal regulations of coal ash, Cid said: "This is not an attack on coal, this is an attack on your people's health, my health and my family's health."
Chester resident Curt Havens standing in front of a section of Little Blue Run. Havens lives about 1,500 feet from the impoundment.
In April 2011, Havens testified before a Congressional Subcommittee on H.R. 1391, a bill written by Rep. McKinley. The bill would remove the EPA's authority to regulate coal ash and block national standards to phase out deadly ponds like Little Blue Run.
Havens described how the toxic ash impoundment was gushing water contaminated with cadmium, a cancer-causing metal, near his home. He also explained to Rep. McKinley and the subcommittee that he had thyroid cancer and his wife has thyroid disease—illnesses caused by cadmium exposure.
Tracks on the surface of the coal ash impoundment.
Coal ash contains deadly pollutants, including toxic metals that can cause cancer and neurological harm—yet is not treated as a hazardous waste and is not subject to federal regulations.
In his testimony before the Congressional Subcommittee, Havens stated: "We understand jobs are important—but no one should have to choose jobs OR health. We need and deserve both."
Pennsylvania residents Sabrina Mislevy and Barbara Reed stand near the former site of a nursing home, property now owned by FirstEnergy. The nursing home was purchased by FirstEnergy and torn down.
Barbara's son John Reed owns a home just 1,000 yards away from the pond and spent years fixing it up. Now, it sits abandoned because of the contaminated water from Little Blue Run.
In an interview, Barbara said, "We all drank this water. And we had no idea we were being poisoned."
The 400-foot tall, 2,200-foot long rock-and-earth "high hazard" dam that holds back approximately 3-square miles of toxic coal ash. The dam is the tallest of its kind in the nation.
"High hazard" is a designation given to a dam that, if it were to breach, would likely cause loss of human life.
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection estimates that approximately 50,000 people could be impacted by breach of Little Blue Run's "high hazard" dam.
The Little Blue Regional Action Group (LBRAG) celebrated its second anniversary in June 2012.
The meeting was part of the monthly gatherings LBRAG holds to keep neighboring communities informed on coal ash and Little Blue Run.
Meetings are held on the third Wednesday of each month in the American Legion Hall of Hookstown, PA.
Lisa Graves-Marcucci, community outreach coordinator for the Environmental Integrity Project, speaks at the June 2012 LBRAG meeting. Lisa has been meeting with residents since 2010.
Earthjustice is pursuing federally enforceable safeguards that would protect all communities from coal ash.
It’s been the work of individuals in Chester, WV, who have brought to light the true impact of coal ash pollution.
Dr. Alan Lockwood, SUNY Buffalo emeritus professor, expert on neurotoxics and coal, author, physician and member of Physicians for Social Responsibility.
Dr. Lockwood has been a Congressional briefing panelist and spent time with communities in Fairbanks, AK dealing with coal ash issues.
In 2011, Dr. Lockwood traveled to Washington, D.C. as a Clean Air Ambassador, meeting with members of Congress, the U.S. EPA and the Obama administration to speak out for strong protections against air pollution that is harmful to communities across the country.
Residents listen to updates on Little Blue Run and coal ash issues in the June 2012 LBRAG meeting.
The notice letter also alleged that FirstEnergy misrepresented the amount of toxic waste it is releasing from the impoundment in violation of federal right to know laws.
59 days later, Pennsylvania DEP made a major court filing that will force the closure of Little Blue Run by December 31, 2016 and require FirstEnergy to devise a plan to clean up contaminated groundwater surrounding the impoundment.
Lisa Widawsky Hallowell, attorney for the EIP, said, "We believe this is the first time PA DEP or any regulator has formally recognized that pollution from coal ash ponds like Little Blue Run release pollutants may present an imminent and substantial endangerment to nearby residents and the environment …
"We're looking forward to reviewing the consent decree and continuing our work to ensure that this site is promptly remediated and closed."
An image captured from the International Space Station on April 4, 2002 illustrates the size of Little Blue Run.
Over the past several years, FirstEnergy has begun to "dewater" the Little Blue Run impoundment. The Mar./Oct. 2011 satellite image (shown in slide 2) documents the visual change as a result of the "dewatering", with the lower "fingers" of the impoundment turning a brownish-grey color.
Although the color has changed, the entire footprint of Little Blue Run—approximately 3-square miles—remains the same.
The U.S. EPA has revealed the existence of more than 1,000 coal ash dump sites. These sites pose significant cancer and health risks that so far have gone unchecked.
Hear the stories of other communities, like Chester, WV, that are standing up against the toxic threat of coal ash:Nevada: An Ill Wind
The Moapa River Indian Reservation sits about 30 miles north of Las Vegas—and about 300 yards from the Reid Gardner Power Station's coal ash ponds. If the conditions are just wrong, coal ash moves across the desert like a toxic sandstorm. Explore video feature.North Carolina: Fighting Back
On 2012 World Water Day, North Carolinians gathered in Asheville—location of two "high hazard" coal ash ponds—to call for protections against coal ash pollution. 13 coal ash ponds in the state have already been found to contaminate nearby waters with toxic chemicals like arsenic, chromium, lead and mercury. Watch video.