FirstEnergy Corp. plans to put more than 3 million tons of coal ash and smokestack scrubber waste each year onto barges and ship it 96 miles up the Ohio and Monongahela rivers to another disposal site when it is forced to close its Little Blue Run coal ash impoundment on the Pennsylvania-West Virginia border at the end of 2016.
The Akron, Ohio-based electric utility announced this week it will ship "coal combustion byproducts" produced by the Bruce Mansfield coal-fired power plant in Shippingport, Beaver County, to an unlined ash disposal site at LaBelle, Fayette County.
In recent years, FirstEnergy had sought state permits to construct a new ash disposal site in Greene, Beaver County, adjacent to the unlined Little Blue impoundment -- already the largest coal ash disposal site in the U.S. -- but that plan was opposed by residents, national environmental groups and the township.
Instead, FirstEnergy said it has signed a long-term agreement with Matt Canestrale Contracting Inc., owner of the LaBelle site, which since 1999 has been accepting coal ash from the Mitchell power plant along the Monongahela River in New Eagle, Washington County. FirstEnergy declined to divulge the length of the contract with Canestrale or its economic terms but said its change in plans was an "economic decision." Mr. Canestrale could not be reached Thursday for comment.
Lisa Graves-Marcucci, a community outreach coordinator with the Environmental Integrity Project, a national environmental organization that has helped organize residents in both LaBelle and Greene near Little Blue, said FirstEnergy is acting irresponsibly by moving its ash from "one unlined site to another unlined site." She said the decision highlights the need for federal rules labeling coal ash as a hazardous substance and restricting its dumping.
"We can't let these small communities continue to suffer because large utilities want to cut costs," she said. She also noted that FirstEnergy will be moving the coal ash, which can contain high levels of toxins, including arsenic, boron, cadmium, chromium, cobalt, lead, manganese, mercury and dioxins, on local rivers that serve as public drinking water sources.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency held public hearings in 2010 on a proposal to designate coal ash as a hazardous waste, but a decision isn't expected until late 2014.
FirstEnergy has asked the state Department of Environmental Protection to certify the coal combustion materials for "beneficial use" so that the material can be spread over the 360-acre former strip mine and waste coal pile at LaBelle to reclaim the site along the Monongahela River.
Lt. Junior Grade Alyssa McDonald, in the U.S. Coast Guard's boat operation and law enforcement division in Pittsburgh, said because coal ash is not classified as a hazardous material, its transport on the rivers is not regulated by the Coast Guard. She 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.
Coal ash slurry from Bruce Mansfield has flowed into the unlined, 1,700-acre Little Blue Run impoundment since 1974, but recent tests have found groundwater near the site contaminated with sulfates, chlorides and arsenic. Under a consent decree approved in federal court last month, FirstEnergy must monitor air quality and stop seepage of a host of pollutants and metals into waterways in the area; restore or replace water supplies to any nearby property where well water becomes contaminated; pay an $800,000 civil penalty; and close Little Blue by the end of 2016.
Don Hopey: email@example.com or 412-263-1983.