Fayette County coal waste pile polluting water, lawsuit alleges

| Wednesday, June 26, 2013, 11:36 a.m.

Residents from a small riverside community in Fayette County are hoping a federal lawsuit filed on Wednesday could be the tipping point in a tense battle against a dump they claim is poisoning their community.

The Citizens Coal Council sued the owner of the LaBelle coal-ash dump in Luzerne, alleging it is polluting the air and water in violation of several federal and state laws. The dump leaches heavy metals into streams and has delivery trucks arriving without covers, endangering aquatic life and allowing harmful ash to blow into the air, the Bridgeville-based environmental group alleged.

“I'll tell you, it is so wonderful. After all of these years, there's some possibility we could have some peace and quiet and clean air for a change,” said George B. Markish, 75, who lives about 500 yards from the site. “It's a step in the right direction, forcing this man (who owns the dump) to adhere to the laws and forcing him to clean his act up.”

The dump's owner, Matt Canestrale Contracting Inc. of Forward, referred calls to its attorney, Bill Gorton. Gorton declined comment. He has repeatedly denied the dump is causing pollution.

State regulators permitted the dump in order to stabilize an environmentally dangerous site. Canestrale took control of a giant pile of waste coal from a defunct mine about 15 years ago. The operation accepts ash from power plants and uses it as a low-level cement to solidify the gob pile that's sat there for about 100 years. The site is about 500 acres, with about 360 used for dumping the new fly ash, according to the lawsuit

State regulators have denied many of the residents' claims that the operation is polluting the neighborhood and sickening its people and pets. Several studies have shown the sooty air pollution in their area is from organic matter, not the dump, a manager at the Department of Environmental Protection said at a public meeting about the site on June 13.

Officials at the Citizens Coal Council and have a different interpretation of the agency's data, said Aimee Erickson, the group's executive director. With the DEP not acting, it became imperative for her group to sue, she said.

“The fact that they choose to ignore their own data, I can't explain that,” Erickson said. “It was pretty shocking to hear the citizens voice their concerns about what's going on there. It sounded to me like their concerns were really not addressed properly and haven't been addressed. It was time to file the lawsuit.”

But the DEP has put the site under increased scrutiny this year for chronic environmental violations. Canestrale was cited for about 20 violations in five years, mostly related to dust control, according to the department.

DEP officials declined to comment on research about water problems at the site. They expect to issue a draft permit for the site's water pollution in the coming weeks, regional spokesman John Poister said.

Residents have often criticized DEP officials for ignoring their claims and for not making changes at the dump. The plaintiffs maintain that their lawsuit is intended to enforce rules that state and federal regulators have not.

“It took us close to four years to get to this point, and I'm satisfied they filed a federal lawsuit,” said Yma Smith, 56, who lives about 250 feet from the dump. “Maybe now somebody will listen and see how serious this problem is here.”

The company's 1997 permit to use the ash says it would form a “cementlike hard cap” that would keep water from reaching the coal waste underneath. In practice, the ash is “somewhat fluid,” allowing water to seep through, the lawsuit says.

Markish and Smith won't drink the water at their homes, using it reluctantly only to wash, they said. Officials at the Tri-County Joint Municipal Authority and Luzerne Township could not be reached for comment.

Timothy Puko is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7991 or tpuko@tribweb.com. Staff writer Brian Bowling contributed.

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