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FirstEnergy sued over coal waste dump

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By Timothy Puko
Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

A group of West Virginia residents have sued FirstEnergy Corp. over pollution and alleged property damage from a coal waste dump the company has agreed to shut down because of arsenic, sulfates and other contaminates that leaked into drinking water.

The Little Blue Run dump in Beaver County straddles the Pennsylvania-West Virginia border but the lawsuit filed in federal court in Wheeling, W. Va., by more than 50 property owners does not include any of its Pennsylvania neighbors. The lawsuit seeks damages of more than $75,000 for each plaintiff.

Beyond the drinking water problems, the dump has also inundated neighboring properties with water, swamping their yards, shifting their foundations and causing mold to grow, alleged the West Virginia plaintiffs, all from Hancock County in the Northern Panhandle. It has also produced a hydrogen sulfide smell that hurt property values, they said.

The plaintiff accuse FirstEnergy of negligence and “reckless, willful and wanton conduct” in creating the situation.

A FirstEnergy spokeswoman at its Akron headquarters declined comment, saying company officials haven't yet seen the lawsuit. The company has an agreement with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection to close the site because of drinking water contamination but that deal does not include any damages for property owners.

The property owners are represented by three law firms, including one connected to Robert F. Kennedy Jr. The Kennedy firm, which is based in New York and specializes in coal waste pollution, has been working with several families in Pennsylvania for years, said Kevin J. Madonna, Kennedy's law partner.

“The type of damage that the community in (West Virginia) is experiencing is not unique just to them,” Madonna said in a phone interview Monday. “Unfortunately, there are hundreds of these types of unlined impoundments causing damage all across the country.”

Coal-fired power plants use these dumps to hold ash waste. That ash contains arsenic, selenium, lead and mercury, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has spent years debating the need for strong controls on it. In June it confirmed 38 sites nationwide where coal waste has a documented history of leaching dangerous levels of chemicals into water.

That included Little Blue Run, a man-made, unlined reservoir that's been an environmental flash point for years, drawing attention from environmental groups around the country. FirstEnergy settled a DEP lawsuit last year with an agreement to stop using the dump by Dec. 31, 2016. The consent decree noted the pollution coming from the dump.

The 976-acre pond covers about a fifth of Greene, Beaver County, with the chemical balance in its water often turning it a “Caribbean” shade of blue, as the dump's manager at FirstEnergy has described it. The company plans to let the waste harden, and then cover it with layers of high-density plastic, cloth and soil. That process could take 15 years or more after the company stops dumping there, company officials have said.

Timothy Puko is a staff writer for Trib Total MMedia.

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