Reclamation project or expanding toxic waste dump -- that is the legal question.
Residents living in Luzerne, Fayette County, have filed a federal complaint against the owner of the LaBelle Refuse Site on claims of illegal mine waste processing and coal ash disposal.
The Citizens Coal Council filed the citizen complaint Wednesday in U.S. District Court against Matt Canestrale Contracting Inc. of Elizabeth.
The complaint says the 362-acre dump site near LaBelle contains 40 million tons of abandoned coal refuse, with two coal slurry ponds and millions of cubic yards of coal combustion waste, or coal ash. The ash is piled atop dozens of feet of coal refuse to form "a large mound of toxic waste."
Attorneys for the Environmental Integrity Projection and Public Justice are bringing the case on behalf of Citizens Coal Council.
Canestrale Contracting attorney William T. Gorton III said the lawsuit sensationalizes the situation at the LaBelle site, which he described as a reclamation project. "There's much more to the story," he said. "Environmentalists have been successful in sensationalizing what's happening here."
With federal approval, Canestrale Construction took over the coal refuse site under agreement to reclaim it with coal ash, which Mr. Gorton said sets up like concrete to cover and stabilize the coal refuse.
"This is the only way to get the property reclaimed. It's all private-sector dollars and private enterprise doing reclamation to the benefit of all. This will be reclaimed to look like another green hill. It's very easy to make bold-faced allegations and make a media splash that is inaccurate and unfair," he said.
Lisa Graves-Marcucci of the Environmental Integrity Project said what was billed as a reclamation project simply opened the way to bring millions of cubic yards of more hazardous coal ash to the site from power plants and elsewhere.
"This site may have been designed as a reclamation site, but now a problematic gob pile has become a polluting coal ash dump," she said. "Citizens have tried to go to regulatory officials and other sources that are supposed to help them and their concerns were not taken seriously, dismissed or ignored.
"It is our mission to have everyone focus on the facts," she said.
The complaint says acidic coal waste from the site contains high levels of the environmentally toxic metals of iron, manganese and aluminum, along with sulfates, salts and such toxic heavy metals as arsenic, boron, lead, selenium and hexavalent chromium.
"Water that contacts coal refuse and coal-ash waste creates leachate that enters ground or surface waters, threatens the health of local communities, makes groundwater unsafe to drink, harms aquatic and other wildlife, and pollutes rivers and streams," the complaint states.
Canestrale Contracting also operates a prep plant site along the Monongahela River, formerly used for coal washing and other coal-preparation activities. Now barges of coal ash dock there to be unloaded onto trucks, which then proceed without tarps or covers to the hilltop dump site. The suit says the process causes coal-ash dust to pollute the community.
Mr. Gorton said the waste is moist, preventing dust from escaping the trucks. But Ms. Graves-Marcucci said the top layers of dust quickly dry during the truck ride and blow into the air.
Forty-nine residents in and near LaBelle have been adversely affected by "the illegal ground and surface water discharges" and fugitive dust emissions that coat homes, cars and other property, the complaint says in accusing the company of violating the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and state Clean Streams and Mining and Waste Disposal laws.
It asks the court to require the company to correct all violations and fully remediate the site while also seeking civil penalties and litigation costs.
David Templeton: email@example.com or 412-263-1578. First Published June 26, 2013 5:30 PM