Coal is in the news, mostly in terms of climate change, dirty air and jobs. But burning coal for electricity gives us something else, too. One notable example sits about 40 miles northwest of Pittsburgh: the Little Blue Run impoundment. This 1,700-acre "lake" on the West Virginia line, in Beaver County, contains four decades' worth of toxic coal ash, held back by an earthen dam overlooking the Ohio River.
Coal ash is the catch-all name for coal combustion residuals, what's left over when we burn coal to spin power-plant turbines. In 2012, according to the American Coal Ash Association, the U.S. produced 110 million tons of the stuff — the nation's second-largest waste stream after household garbage. And Little Blue holds more than its share: Out of some 600 such impoundments nationally, it's the largest, and it's still taking waste by pipeline from FirstEnergy Generation's nearby Bruce Mansfield plant.
Little Blue is also unlined. In 2012, after tests found groundwater contaminated with toxins like sulfates, magnesium and arsenic, the state's Department of Environmental Protection ordered FirstEnergy to cease using the site by Dec. 31, 2016. To assure proper closure and water-monitoring, the state ordered FirstEnergy to post a bond of $169 million, the largest ever required of a waste facility in Pennsylvania.
But all that coal ash will still have to go somewhere. In January 2013, the company announced a new plan: It would load its ash — up to 3.9 million tons of it annually — on barges bound for a disposal site in Fayette County, nearly 100 miles up the Ohio and Monongahela rivers. FirstEnergy has applied to DEP to get the ash reclassified for "beneficial use" and deemed suitable for reclamation (ironically) of a waste-coal pile at the Fayette site.
The plan rankles activists like Lisa Graves-Marcucci. The Jefferson Hills resident is community-outreach coordinator for the Environmental Integrity Project, a national group joining with the local Citizens Coal Council and Little Blue Run Action Group to oppose the application. Citing FirstEnergy's environmental violations at Little Blue, Graves-Marcucci says, "They want to use that exact same ash in a different way," and in another unlined site. "How do we prevent the next Little Blue from happening?"
Critics also note that barge transport is risky — barges can sink. And they note that while FirstEnergy has announced where it will send its coal ash, it failed to specify that in its application.
DEP won't comment on the application because it's still under technical review, says DEP spokesperson John Poister. And FirstEnergy holds that its disposal methods are responsible; company spokesperson Stephanie Walton notes that the DEP encourages using coal ash for mine reclamation. And she says the disposal site — Matt Canestrale Contracting Inc., in LaBelle, Pa. — isn't named in the application because siting is handled under a separate permitting process.
And yes, "beneficial use" of coal ash is a thing. Nationally, almost half of coal ash isn't landfilled or impounded, but rather blended into products like concrete and wallboard, or used for purposes like structural fill. (Some of Bruce Mansfield's ash ends up at the nearby National Gypsum Plant.) And though environmental groups call the practice dangerous, about 8 percent of coal ash is used in mining applications, including mine reclamation, whether as fill or to neutralize acid drainage.
How can a substance containing toxic metals be beneficial? Good question: Federal law has long exempted coal ash from hazardous-waste laws, even though the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency acknowledges that the toxins in coal ash are "associated with cancer and various other serious health effects ... and often migrate to drinking water sources."
Following the massive 2008 spill of 1 billion gallons of coal ash from a ruptured earthen impoundment in Tennessee, the EPA finally proposed classifying coal ash in impoundments and landfills as hazardous; the more stringent of two regulatory options now under agency review would phase out surface impoundments like Little Blue entirely. A ruling is expected this year — but while reclassifying coal ash as hazardous might bring it under tighter scrutiny for transport by barge, the proposed regs still exempt most "beneficial uses," and they don't address minefilling, either.
In any case, as long as we're still burning coal, the ash will be with us, too.