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FirstEnergy coal waste dump delay irks neighbors

| Thursday, Aug. 15, 2013, 10:04 p.m.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Marcia Hughes, left, and Barb Reed, residents of Greene in Beaver County, listen as FirstEnergy officials detail plans to close a coal waste dump that has polluted groundwater in Beaver County and West Virginia’s northern panhandle.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Resident Jason Keys speaks at a public hearing on FirstEnergy Corp.'s plans to close a coal waste dump in Beaver County and the northern panhandle of West Virginia on Thursday at the Hookstown fire hall.

Helen Bowen moved to rural Western Pennsylvania to escape California's smog.

“This turned out to be worse,” said Bowen, 68, who lives about a mile from a huge coal waste dump that has polluted groundwater in Beaver County and West Virginia's northern panhandle.

Bowen and more than 100 others crammed into the Hookstown fire hall on Thursday to hear FirstEnergy Corp.'s plans to close the 976-acre dump known as Little Blue Run.

FirstEnergy, based in Akron, Ohio, agreed to stop pumping coal waste slurry into Little Blue Run by Dec. 31, 2016, under a consent decree with Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection. But the energy company said it could take at least 15 years to cover the site.

“That's too long,” said Marlene Pontis, 77, of Greene, Beaver County. “We're talking about people's lives here.”

It remains unknown how long the company would monitor the site after 15 years.

The dump is a sprawling pond that covers about one-fifth of Greene and reaches into West Virginia. FirstEnergy's Bruce Mansfield power plant in Shippingport, the largest in the state, pumps about 3 million gallons of waste slurry into it every day via four underground pipes that stretch seven miles between the sites.

FirstEnergy senior scientist David Hoone said the company plans to cover the slurry in segments, about 65 acres a year. It will use plastic for the first layer, cloth for the second and a foot of soil for the third. It will plant grass on top of that. Company officials said the region's wet, unpredictable climate will complicate the effort.

“That's a pretty aggressive schedule for this kind of work,” Hoone said.

That drew some groans in the crowd.

“To hear him say 65 acres a year is ambitious is upsetting to me. They have all the resources to do it better and do it faster,” said Mitchell Shaheen of Aliquippa, an attorney for the tiny boroughs of Georgetown and Hookstown.

Many wanted assurances that monitoring will continue long after the site is closed. DEP officials said the period has not been determined, but at least 30 years is typical. FirstEnergy also could apply to shorten the term.

“It should be a lifetime of monitoring, to protect our children and grandchildren. Anything less than 30 years would be a slap on the wrist,” said Barb Reed, 54, of Greene, who refuses to drink water from her well or use it for cooking.

Marcia Hughes, 72, said that when she and her husband built their home in Greene in 1966, they had an unlimited supply of clean water. Construction of Little Blue started about a decade later. Now, she says, softener no longer works on her water, which smells like rotten eggs. She refuses to drink it, fearing contamination.

“Why do we need to live in fear?” Hughes asked.

Tom Fontaine is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7847 or tfontaine@tribweb.com.

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