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Residents say Fayette coal ash dump like 'the moon'

| Friday, June 14, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Residents near a coal ash dump in Fayette County describe a neighborhood where birds die after drinking from puddles, puppies have birth defects, people are sick and gray dust covers everything.

“It looks like the moon,” said Jayne Daugherty, 50, one of nine residents who spoke Thursday night at a two-hour public meeting about the LaBelle dump in Luzerne, owned by Matt Canestrale Contracting Inc. “People act like we don't matter. … What am I supposed to do? I'm stuck here. Is that fair?”

More than 70 people filled the Luzerne Township fire hall in the old coal mining community of LaBelle — which has about 220 residents — along the Monongahela River. About 10 officials from the Department of Environmental Protection were there to take testimony and lead an informational meeting, the first of a series of events tied to the dump's permit renewal.

Canestrale is seeking the dump's third permit renewal since it opened in 1998. It's a 504-acre, 40-million-ton hill of coal waste from defunct mines.

The company took control of the site under an agreement to accept fly ash waste from power plants and use that as a low-level cement to solidify the site, one of the region's largest gob piles.

“We've investigated every health complaint, visited every home … and we can't support the claims that this is caused by off-site fugitive dust,” said Joel Koricich, environmental group manager for DEP's district mining operations. Several studies have shown the dust is organic matter, he said. “I can appreciate the concerns and the complaints. We take them seriously.”

Some residents believe they've suffered a disproportionate amount of illnesses like asthma and cancer, which they blamed on the dump. The site is unstable and leeches manganese, sulfate and aluminum pollution into local water supplies, said Michael Nixon, a board member at the Citizens Coal Council, which is pursuing a lawsuit to shut down the site.

“It's really easy to get up and give a lot of rhetorical comments unsubstantiated by facts,” said Hiram Ribblett, a contracted engineer for Canestrale. “Most of what you heard was rhetoric.”

DEP oversight at the dump has larger business implications for the region. Chevron Corp. started seismic testing for gas exploration, but the DEP temporarily stopped it for extra scrutiny. FirstEnergy Corp. has a pending deal to ship 3 million tons a year of power plant waste from its giant Bruce Mansfield Plant in Beaver County to the LaBelle dump because FirstEnergy's first dump closed under a litany of environmental complaints.

“It doesn't make sense,” Yma Smith, 56, said about the deal to close one dump and keep another 250 feet from her home open for the waste. “People here are sick and dying.”

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

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