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3 W.Pa. coal dumps contaminate water, EPA says

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By Timothy Puko
Friday, Aug. 9, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Federal regulators have classified three Western Pennsylvania coal waste dumps as sites where there has been evidence of groundwater contamination, environmental groups announced Thursday, saying it supports their contention that state oversight is lax.

Dumps in Jefferson Hills and Beaver and Greene counties made the list, which the Environmental Protection Agency published on June 7. The agency reviewed cases cited in news reports and by environmental groups.

The agency confirmed 38 sites nationwide where coal waste has a documented history of leaching dangerous levels of chemicals into water. The review was part of an EPA effort to assess its own proposal for new limits on the liquid waste that power plants can dump.

“EPA's list of polluting coal ash dumps barely scratches the surface,” said Eric Schaeffer, director of the Environmental Integrity Project, which pointed out the three local sites to the EPA. “Without federal rules, many states take a ‘see no evil' approach and do not require the operators of landfills and impoundments to monitor all coal ash pollution.”

An EPA spokeswoman declined to discuss the implications of the classification, saying only that the agency is reviewing information. Officials at the state Department of Environmental Protection did not return phone calls or respond to emails.

The owners of the three local sites said state regulators have been monitoring the dumps and contend their dumps meet state standards. FirstEnergy Corp. owns the Little Blue Run dump in Beaver County and Hatfield's Ferry Power Station in Greene County. NRG Energy Inc. recently acquired the Fern Valley dump on the Jefferson Hills-Clairton line as part of its acquisition of GenOn Energy Inc.

“Any potential past challenges at these sites have been fully addressed and are in compliance with the rules of the state of Pennsylvania,” said Stephanie Thornton, a spokeswoman at FirstEnergy's headquarters in Akron, Ohio.

The Environmental Integrity Project has repeatedly accused Pennsylvania of being too lenient with coal ash dumps across the region. State officials should see the EPA's assessment as mounting evidence that coal ash is not safe for reuse, said Lisa Graves-Marcucci, a local community organizer with the group.

FirstEnergy announced in January that it would close Little Blue Run by 2016 as part of a consent decree that said it has polluted groundwater with several chemicals, possibly including arsenic. The EPA reviewed data the Environmental Integrity Project gathered showing a dump at Hatfield's Ferry caused similar pollution in groundwater and streams.

Fern Valley has been closed since 2007, but it has also showed a “troublesome” amount of arsenic in tests between 2002 and 2007, according to public data gathered by the Environmental Integrity Project.

NRG has been conducting monthly monitoring, and DEP inspections within the last two weeks found no problems, said David Gaier, spokesman at the company's New Jersey headquarters.

Coal-fired power plants have to capture harmful pollutants from their burn-off to avoid causing air pollution and acid rain. They often use lime to turn the particles into a slurry that can then get dumped into impoundments. That coal ash contains arsenic, selenium, lead and mercury, EPA has said, and those contaminants can pose health risks if they leach into groundwater.

The agency has spent years considering stricter regulations for the ash. That started with a 2008 environmental disaster at a Tennessee power plant. A dam at one of its impoundments broke, releasing more than 5 million cubic yards of ash into a river and nearby lands.

Little Blue Run is one of the largest impoundments around, and the DEP is hosting a public hearing about its closing at 6 p.m. Thursday at the Hookstown Volunteer Fire Department.

FirstEnergy officials will be there to make their first public explanation of how they plan to close the site, which lies just south of the Ohio River in Greene Township and partly in West Virginia.

Timothy Puko is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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