Dam breaks, tainted wells prompt new look at coal-ash dumps that escaped EPA review

“Eventually, you may swim and fish in this waste-disposal site!” a local newspaper enthused in 1976 about the Little Blue Run Impoundment, 1,000 acres of turquoise water that doubled as a receptacle for tons of arsenic-tainted coal ash.

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Decades later, the dumping continues, but there is no sign of the idyllic recreational lake promised by electric company executives. Rather than flocking to the water, some neighbors are moving out to escape spreading groundwater contamination, foul odors and clouds of chalky dust. Others would love to flee but can’t because their property values have plummeted.

“It’s depressing. It’s sad,” said Annette Rhodes, 44, who has watched whole streets empty out in the hillside neighborhood behind the lake, which straddles the West Virginia-Pennsylvania line 30 miles west of Pittsburgh. “You get mad one minute and you cry the next.”

Today, the Little Blue Run Impoundment is one of more than 600 artificial lakes and ponds built to hold coal ash, the powdery waste from coal furnaces that generate electricity. Some, like the Little Blue, have leaked contaminants, while others have suffered catastrophic breaches that released thousands of gallons of polluted water into rivers and streams.

All have this in common: Exemption from the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulations governing waste disposal. Since the 1970s, utility companies have been allowed to dispose of coal-ash under state laws that vary widely across jurisdictions. The exemption was created by Congress, which, to avoid rules that might discourage the use of coal, blocked the EPA from classifying coal ash as hazardous waste, or even subjecting it to the same national standards that apply to other kinds of solid waste.

That could change as early as Friday as the EPA prepares to issue new rules that will, for the first time, include coal ash in federal guidelines for waste disposal. The long-awaited decision could significantly increase disposal costs for utility companies, depending on whether the EPA decides to classify coal ash as “hazardous” waste, requiring more stringent standards for disposal and cleanup.

Industry officials are bracing for tighter rules while hoping the EPA will opt for something short of a “hazardous” label that they say will hurt companies and raise utility rates. Thomas Adams, executive director of the American Coal Ash Association, said stricter laws are unnecessary for a waste product that has been deemed harmless enough for use as an additive in cement and tarmac. He accused “anti-coal groups” of promoting a “steady stream of misleading publicity regarding the safety of coal ash.”

But community activists and environmental groups point to a decades-long record of dam breaks, spills and leaks in demanding greater protection for those living near such dumps. Hardly harmless, residue from coal-burning contains significant concentrations of arsenic, mercury and heavy metals that are toxic to humans and wildlife, environmentalists and regulators say.

“The issues are matters of life and death: the proper maintenance of high hazard dams and the monitoring of drinking water for carcinogens,” said Lisa Evans, a lawyer for EarthJustice, a nonprofit public-interest law organization that sued the EPA seeking federal oversight for coal-ash disposal. “Never before has EPA left matters of this vital importance to the voluntary whim of industry without federal oversight.”

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While invisible to most Americans, the coal ash problem is immense, at least in volume. U.S. power plants annually produce about 140 million tons of the stuff, roughly the displacement weight of three battleships, making it the nation’s second largest single waste stream after mine debris.

The waste consists of powdery “fly ash” collected from smokestack filters and scrubbers as well as coarser bottom ash and boiler slag. All is collected and trucked or piped to disposal sites that range from landfills and abandoned quarries to large, often unlined, ponds that hold a soup-like mixture of ash and water.

The Little Blue Run impoundment — the country’s largest — holds about 20 billion gallons of coal-ash slurry, enough to fill 30,000 Olympic-sized pools. And there are nearly 630 other impoundments in the United States, some built by companies that no longer exist.

Momentum for stricter controls on coal ash has been building since Dec. 22, 2008, the day an earthen dike gave way at a coal-ash impoundment near Kingston, Tennessee, releasing more than a billion gallons of coal-ash slurry into surrounding neighborhoods. A wall of gray sludge flattened several houses and polluted miles of the Emory and Clinch rivers, causing major fish kills.

The rupture captured national attention as the worst coal-ash spill in U.S. history. But then, six years later, a ruptured pipe at a Duke Energy impoundment leaked 39,000 tons of liquefied waste into North Carolina’s Dan River, contaminating the waterway near the town of Edenton and triggering health advisories.

The two spills highlighted the gap in federal environmental oversight, while also reinforcing the potential dangers for those living nearby. The Little Blue impoundment has never breached, but it sits behind a 1,500-foot-high earthen dam that is officially classified as being a “high hazard potential” risk to downstream communities in case of a failure. While company officials cite a record of compliance and frequent safety inspections, some neighbors say they are nervous, especially when they see service trucks roaring up the road to the dam at odd hours.

“It’s fearful when you see them rush in with that kind of urgency,” said Tonya Wiseman, a Chester resident who lives a few hundred yards from the impoundment. “Sometimes they come up here at 10 p.m. with their trucks and big lights. You never know from minute to minute what’s going to happen.”

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But dam breaks are hardly the only worry. For more than a decade, residents of Chester’s working-class Lawrenceville neighborhood have been coping with what they describe as a slow-moving disaster, as contaminants from the Little Blue Run impoundment migrate through their groundwater and, on certain days, gush from the hillside into their back yards.

Older residents of the community of ranch houses and bungalows can still remember the men from the Bruce Mansfield power plant who visited in the mid-1970s passing out pamphlets about the new man-made lake that was being constructed just over the next ridge. Debbie Havens, then a newlywed with an infant son, said she scoffed at the visitors’ suggestion that a lake built for coal waste would some day benefit her family.

“They said it would be a recreational lake with pretty blue water, and there would boating, skiing and picnicking,” Havens said. “I said, ‘Do I have stupid on my face?’ I knew it was too good to be true.”

For years, the lake was mostly just a curiosity, a huge expanse of water where there had once been a wooded valley. The impoundment slowly filled with piped-in slurry, to which the power plant added chemicals so the waste would solidify into an impermeable barrier to prevent leaking. Sealed off to neighbors by a chain fence, the lake was notable mostly for its teal-blue color, an odd spectacle that could be easily spotted from aerial photos.

The problems began years later when neighbors noticed water seeping from strange places along the hill that abuts the community. Tests confirmed that contaminated water was seeping from the lake and moving across hundreds of feet of rock and soil to gush to the surface in dishwater-gray springs. Arsenic and other toxins began turning up in test wells around the community.

A spokeswoman for the current owner of the power plant, FirstEnergy Corp., touted the company’s record in responding to neighbors’ concerns, including a water-monitoring system that now includes 100 test wells around the lake.

“FirstEnergy is committed to complying with all regulations regarding coal ash disposal, and currently complies with some of the strictest state regulations in the country in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio,” FirstEnergy’s Stephanie Walton said.

For the Chester community, at least, a partial remedy is on the horizon. Under a federal consent order reached last year, FirstEnergy agreed to stop dumping new waste into the Little Blue Run impoundment by the end of 2016. After that, the company is required to drain the water and cover the entire lake with layers of impermeable sheeting to prevent more contaminated water from seeping into the ground.

The cleanup will not be completed until 2028, and existing contamination to the groundwater will presumably persist for decades afterward.

New coal ash, meanwhile, will be produced daily for years to come. Plant officials want to dispose of the material by loading it on barges and transporting it down the Ohio River to be dumped in an old rock quarry across the border in Ohio. The proposal, which awaits approval by state environmental agencies, illustrates why the old way of regulating coal ash — a patchwork of state laws in which rules can vary from one town to the next — is problematic, said Lisa Graves-Marcucci, a Pennsylvania activist with the Environmental Integrity Project, the organization that filed the lawsuit that led to the clean-up order.

“For too long, it’s been left up to the citizens to enforce,” she said. “If the industry is not given clear ground rules that apply to all 50 states, they will find ways not to comply. And then the onus will fall again on citizens to catch them.”