Utility's bid for hauling coal ash by barge could get approval on fast track

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FirstEnergy Corp.'s controversial plan to barge more than 3.5 million tons of coal ash a year on the Ohio and Monongahela rivers to a new disposal site in Fayette County could be approved by the state before the public gets a chance to fully comment on important parts of the proposal, according to four environmental organizations.

The groups say the state Department of Environmental Protection will close a public comment period on FirstEnergy's application for a "beneficial use" permit for ash disposal Monday, before the company submits its final permit proposal at the end of December.

That permit would allow the company to deposit the coal ash and smokestack scrubber waste produced by its Bruce Mansfield coal-fired power plant in Shippingport, Beaver County, to benefit reclamation of abandoned strip mines.

FirstEnergy must find a new place to put the power plant wastes because of a consent order with the DEP, that requires the company to close its 1,900-acre Little Blue Run coal ash disposal site along the Pennsylvania-West Virginia border in Beaver County at the end of 2016, in part because seepage of pollutants from the unlined impoundment has contaminated groundwater and surface water in the area.

"The public has a right to know what FirstEnergy has in mind for this massive amount of ash, which has already caused tremendous harm in communities around 'Little Blue,' " said Lisa Graves-Marcucci, community outreach coordinator for the Environmental Integrity Project, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental organization involved in Little Blue closure issues.

The EIP and three local organizations -- the Citizens Coal Council, Little Blue Regional Action Group and Residents Against the Power Plant -- have asked the DEP to republish the company's revised final beneficial use proposal in the Pennsylvania Bulletin and reopen the public comment period, or extend the original comment period by 90 days.

DEP said it would not re-notice the permit or officially extend the public comment period, but will continue to accept comments on the final company beneficial use proposal in January, after it is submitted at the end of December.

"There will be a time later when FirstEnergy will have to explain where the ash is going, but at this point it doesn't have to stipulate that," said John Poister, a DEP spokesman. "When the company submits its final application everyone will be notified and when it determines where the material will be sent, it will need to get permits from our mining office and there will be public comment and most likely a public hearing."

The Little Blue ash impoundment, the nation's largest coal ash disposal site, was opened in 1974 as a wet storage site for ash and smokestack scrubber waste from the Akron, Ohio-based utility's Bruce Mansfield power plant. FirstEnergy first proposed to expand the facility, but, after receiving opposition to its plan, last year decided to dispose of the coal ash elsewhere.

In January, FirstEnergy floated a plan to place the ash on barges and ship it 96 miles up the Ohio and Monongahela rivers to another unlined ash disposal site on a 360-acre former strip mine and waste coal pile at La Belle, Fayette County. The company said it had signed a long-term contract with Matt Canestrale Contracting Inc., which has been accepting coal ash from several other power plants since 1999.

Stephanie Walton, a FirstEnergy spokeswoman, said the company plans to ship all of its ash from Bruce Mansfield to the La Belle site, but must get several state permits.

But Alayne Gobeille, an EIP attorney, said that destination isn't included in the beneficial use permit application and it should be.

"For some reason FirstEnergy doesn't want to say in the general permit what it's going to do with the waste, and DEP seems to be taking the position that the permit doesn't require that," Ms. Gobeille said. "But that's different from my understanding of the general permit provisions and different than what DEP required in the past."

She also questioned why DEP is allowing FirstEnergy to apply for a beneficial use designation under a 15-year-old general permit rather than a new individual permit that, she said, would be more applicable.

The public comment period on the beneficial use permit ends Monday. Comments on the permit can be sent to Diane McDaniel, Environmental Engineering Manager, Department of Environmental Protection, 400 Waterfront Drive, Pittsburgh, PA 15222-5984.

Don Hopey: dhopey@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1983.


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