Residents in Fayette County's La Belle said they've seen large loads of fly ash arriving in open barges with nothing covering the coal waste. They've witnessed how it's unloaded onto trucks, with the crane sometimes dropping the ash onto the shoreline of the Monongahela River and left there.
Then they've seen loaded trucks motoring near a La Belle neighborhood in Luzerne Township without anything covering the fly ash as it's taken to a hilltop where it is dumped and left uncovered. The disposal site owned by Matt Canestrale Contracting Inc. accepts material from Allegheny Energy's Hatfield's Ferry coal-fired power plant in Greene County.
And on that hilltop, the gray ash that feels like talcum powder and contains concentrations of arsenic, lead and mercury sits in piles that are exposed to wind and unprotected from rain.
Gary Kuklish of La Belle questions how, in this modern era, potentially dangerous fly ash can be shipped, unloaded, transported and dumped without being covered at any stage of the process.
"People are dying here," said Mr. Kuklish, 54, who's had his blood tested for heavy metals by his doctor. He points to ash-like powder that has accumulated on window sills of houses. "I don't feel good. Everyone here should be tested for arsenic, mercury and lead. My lead is high.
"Everyone I know has breathing problems."
Mr. Kuklish circulated petitions signed by 93 La Belle-area residents that he sent to the state Department of Environmental Protection to seek an investigation and force the owner to clean up the process. DEP officials investigated and ordered the company to dampen roads to reduce dust. But Mr. Kuklish believes DEP's actions, to date, have been insufficient to correct the problems and protect the public.
In October, the DEP and concerned citizens toured the fly ash depot.
In response to repeated calls from the Post-Gazette, Mr. Canestrale, the owner, indicated through an employee that his lawyer has advised him not to comment.
Others in the La Belle area have joined Mr. Kuklish in voicing concerns about the fly ash operation and its potential health impact on their community. Worries began with news in May 2006 that a barge had sunk at the docking site, releasing tons of fly ash into the Mon River.
Up the hill from the barge-unloading facility, La Belle residents complain often about dust that settles on their properties and hangs in the air. They fear wind is picking up the ash from the hilltop dump and exposing surrounding neighborhoods to harmful heavy metals known to cause cancer and other health effects.
Downwind from the dump site sits Sauerkraut Hill, where residents say there are nine cases of cancer in the 18 houses.
A sample of fly ash that was taken from the La Belle dump site, which was tested by a local company, R.J. Lee Group, shows presence of arsenic and several heavy metals, most significantly lead. These represent levels in the actual ash, and not amounts found in the air or on neighboring properties.
But George "Sonny" Markish, 72, who lives less than a half mile from the fly-ash dump, is concerned about traces of fly ash and soot detected on the meat freezer inside his garage. Apples with blackened skins on a tree in his yard also contained traces of fly ash.
"If you're not very sick, don't move here because you will be," said Mr. Markish, who has lived in La Belle since 1991 and has had a stroke and been diagnosed with asthma and colon cancer. "And the winters are worse because the wind just carries it directly off the hilltop onto my property."
Yma Smith, 53, Mr. Markish's neighbor, said she must deal with fly ash every day and said it's affecting her family's health.
In summer months, she changes her swimming-pool filter cartridge daily, instead of every two weeks, as recommended. The previous day's filter was stained black. She said she has various health problems, including persistent headaches. She buys bottled water for her husband, Rudolph, 54, who is on dialysis due to kidney failure, and cannot drink public water.
She no longer eats vegetables from her garden. Her tomatoes turned brown before they ripened, she said.
Her 6-year-old great-nephew, Jamar Byrd, has a chronic cough, she said.
While there's no scientific proof that fly ash or other forms of pollution are causing health problems, Luzerne Township has elevated mortality levels for diseases that have been linked to pollution exposure, according to the Post-Gazette ecological study on mortality rates. Luzerne had 170 heart-disease deaths from 2000 through 2008 -- 26 percent higher than the national average, which would project 135 deaths.
The Mon Valley has multiple major sources of pollution -- including the Mitchell, Elrama and Hatfield's Ferry power plants.