Plan to close coal waste site has 'deficiencies,' DEP says

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FirstEnergy's plan to close its Little Blue Run coal ash impoundment in Beaver County contains more than 160 "deficiencies," including a failure to acknowledge arsenic contamination of groundwater, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

While many of those deficiencies are technical in nature, the DEP's 29-page review letter to FirstEnergy also cites dozens that are more serious, especially the company's failure to report, monitor or address contamination of groundwater and surface water by a variety of heavy metal pollutants seeping from the nation's largest, unlined coal ash disposal site.

In a federal court consent decree approved in December 2012, FirstEnergy agreed to close "Little Blue" by the end of 2016 and submitted the required closure plan to the DEP in March.

First Energy has 60 days to correct the deficiencies or risk having its closure plan rejected. If the plan approval is delayed and the company misses consent decree deadlines, it could face court fines. John Poister, a DEP spokesman, said the department has not had any contact with the company since the letter was sent on Oct. 3.

The DEP letter repeatedly states the FirstEnergy water quality and well monitoring and assessments at the 1,300-acre impoundment are "incomplete," "inadequate" or "cannot be accepted" and requests multiple revisions and "reanalysis." It also characterized the company's plans to abate contamination of the groundwater and prevent future degradation by capping the impoundment with a 1-foot thick soil seal as "inadequate."

"The department does not consider those activities to constitute complete abatement measures," the DEP letter states, "in that they do not provide for any necessary restoration, reclamation or recovery of groundwater resources adversely affected by the waste disposal in the impoundment ..."

The impoundment, built in 1975 and located about 30 miles northwest of Pittsburgh, sits astride the Pennsylvania-West Virginia border next to the Ohio River. It is filled with 20 billion gallons of coal ash from FirstEnergy's Bruce Mansfield power plant in Shippingport, Beaver County.

Stephanie Walton, a FirstEnergy spokeswoman, said the company is still reviewing the letter.

"DEP has requested additional data, which the company will provide," she said in an email statement. "Receiving feedback from DEP is a standard step in the process and we look forward to working with DEP to finalize plans for closure of the facility."

In addition to closing the coal ash facility, the federal consent decree requires the Akron, Ohio-based electric company to monitor air quality and stop seepage of arsenic and a host of pollutants and heavy metals into groundwater and waterways in the area, and restore or replace contaminated water supplies to any nearby properties. It also agreed to pay an $800,000 civil penalty.

Whitney Ferrell, an Environmental Integrity Project attorney who represented the Little Blue Regional Action Group citizens group in a 2012 legal action that eventually led to the consent decree, said the review letter shows FirstEnergy is continuing to dispute the state's groundwater contamination findings.

The DEP letter also questions company cost estimates for monitoring, managing and treating contaminated water flowing off the impoundment area, construction and monitoring of "leachate" ponds to contain seepage, erosion controls, soil for capping the impoundment and more than 67,000 feet of fencing.

In its closure plan, FirstEnergy states that capping of the impoundment will start on Jan. 1, 2017, take 15 years to complete, and cost more than $133 million.

Ms. Ferrell, in written comments on the closure plan submitted to the DEP in September, said that time frame is too long and won't protect public health and the environment. She urged the state to require closure and restoration work be completed in four years, by 2021.

environment - neigh_west

Don Hopey: dhopey@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1983. First Published October 16, 2013 8:00 PM


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