Massive coal ash reservoir holding up in Beaver County
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FirstEnergy's Little Blue Run coal ash reservoir in Beaver County is the biggest in the East and one of the worst in the nation, according to an environmental group's new pollution study.
But the company and state regulators say there's little risk it will collapse like coal-waste sites in Tennessee and Alabama.
"Little Blue" as it's known, even though it's not little or blue, is 30 times bigger than the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston ash dam that ruptured just before Christmas, sending a billion-gallon wave of toxic sludge through eastern Tennessee communities and badly fouling the Emory River, a tributary of the Tennessee River.
And it's also much larger than the coal ash reservoir that failed Friday at another TVA facility, the Widows Creek Fossil Fuel power plant in northeastern Alabama.
Mark Durbin, a FirstEnergy spokesman, said that not only is the 400-foot-high, 2,200-foot-long rock-and-earth Little Blue dam much stronger than the TVA dams, it undergoes a comprehensive inspection by the company twice a year and by the state Department of Environmental Protection annually.
"The dam was built with 6 million cubic yards of rock and earth fill and is very solid," Mr. Durbin said. "It was designed with a 100-year storm in mind."
In addition, he said, the coal ash behind the Little Blue Run dam is less liquid and more solid than the coal ash at the accident sites.
"The material here is scrubber slurry that's limestone based and mixed with fly ash and stabilizing agents," Mr. Durbin said.
"It hardens up into a low-grade concrete, and that's much different than what you have in Tennessee."
Tucked into steep-sided valleys along the Ohio River and spanning the Pennsylvania-West Virginia border, the 1,300-acre Little Blue impoundment was opened in 1975 to store coal-combustion waste from the 2,490-megawatt Bruce Mansfield coal-fired power plant in Shippingport, 25 miles northwest of Pittsburgh. The power plant burns 7 million tons of coal annually and is connected to Little Blue by a seven-mile underground pipe that carries 625,000 tons of fly ash and bottom ash to the reservoir each year.
The reservoir was scheduled to close in 2008. But after getting state approval in 2006 to make the impoundment up to 62 feet higher by stacking coal ash behind small dikes built on top of already solidified ash, its closing date was pushed back until 2031 or beyond.
Tom Rathbun, a DEP spokesman, said the dam is one of the largest in the state. It is classified as a "high-hazard dam" because of its size, he said, but it is well maintained.
"FirstEnergy is one of our most responsible dam owners," he said. "It had an inadequate spillway and they rebuilt it. The dam does have seepage in the abutment of the dam, but that is collected and monitored daily, and there are movement detectors located within the dam."
Little Blue is one of seven permitted coal ash disposal reservoirs in the state but the only one in the southwestern region.
Mr. Rathbun said all of those are constructed in compliance with the state Dam Safety Law, and handling of the ash and groundwater monitoring is regulated as a non-hazardous waste.
The recent impoundment failures have thrust the clean coal-dirty coal argument back into the national spotlight. Environmentalists say coal ash should be classified as a hazardous waste and that the lack of federal regulation has created unsafe and unhealthy conditions at many of the nation's 1,300 coal-combustion-waste reservoirs, many of which are in states where regulation is lax or non-existent.
Last Wednesday, before the Widows Creek Dam failure, the Environmental Integrity Project, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental group, released a report that singled out Little Blue as one of the worst coal-waste reservoirs in the nation because the ash from Bruce Mansfield contains high amounts of selenium, which is toxic to fish. Little Blue Run is a tributary of the Ohio River.
Titled "Disaster in Waiting," the report used federal statistics supplied by coal-fired utilities to show that 124 million pounds of toxic chemicals, including arsenic, lead, chromium, selenium and thallium, are in the coal ash deposited in surface impoundments each year.
"The disaster in Tennessee shows an industry free of regulation that has run amok," said Lisa Evans, an attorney with EarthJustice, one of four environmental groups that released the report. "The federal government has left the regulation of coal ash to the states and they have fallen down on the job."
She said Alabama has no regulations governing coal ash disposal, Ohio has "broad exemptions," and North Carolina, Illinois and Tennessee have no requirements for liners beneath the impoundments to prevent groundwater contamination.
A dam collapse and subsequent ash-sludge spill in 1967 on the Clinch River in Virginia released about 130 million gallons. A collapse in 2005, at PPL Corp.'s Martin's Creek ash reservoir in Northampton County, released about 100 million gallons into the Delaware River.
In 2000, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was ready to designate coal ash hazardous but backed off after hard lobbying by the coal and utility industries.
The agency promised to issue national guidelines for ash disposal but did not address the issue during the Bush administration's eight years in office.
Even if those reservoirs don't collapse, harmful chemicals can leach from the ash reservoirs and contaminate ground and surface water, especially if state regulations do not require an impermeable liner under the reservoir.
Pennsylvania regulations require liners under coal ash reservoirs, but Little Blue was exempted from that requirement.
"Pennsylvania needs to do better. Our communities are being surrounded by ash piles and the ash piles are not lined," said Lisa Graves Marcucci, president of Jefferson Action Group in Jefferson Hills.
"It's past time to look at the cumulative effects of the way this state allows the storage, hauling and disposal of fly ash."
Ralph Hysong, who lives in Aliquippa, about a mile southeast of the power plant, said he has little confidence in the company or the state to protect public health around Little Blue.
"People who live around there have already had their ground water, their well water, affected," Mr. Hysong said. "When I heard about Tennessee I thought about Little Blue, especially when the TVA was saying that the coal ash isn't harmful."
Subsequent water and coal ash testing has found levels of arsenic, lead, chromium and other metals at two to 300 times higher than federal drinking water standards.
First Published January 11, 2009 12:00 am