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'High hazard' ash basin in Beaver County called safe

| Thursday, Dec. 25, 2008

The Little Blue Run fly ash basin in Beaver County is at least 30 times larger than the one that failed Tuesday in Tennessee, but the company that owns the Greene Township basin believes the facility is sound.

FirstEnergy Corp. uses the 1,300-acre lake to store the ash byproduct from scrubbers at its Bruce Mansfield power plant in Shippingport. The basin is one of five fly ash facilities in Pennsylvania that the state Department of Environmental Protection classifies as "high hazard" because a failure of the dams would threaten lives and property, said DEP spokeswoman Teresa Candori.

The other four high-hazard fly ash facilities are in the eastern part of the state -- two in Snyder County and one each in Northampton and Lancaster counties, she said. The designation as "high hazard" doesn't mean there's anything structurally wrong with the facilities, Candori said.

About 780 dams in the state -- including the ones for these five facilities -- are classified as "high hazard" because "if they failed, it would destroy people or property," she said.

The 400-foot high Little Blue Run dam is the second-tallest in the state. An engineering analysis estimates the dam's failure would endanger about 50,000 people, Candori said.

FirstEnergy spokesman Mark Durbin said the company pays an independent company to inspect Little Blue Run's dam annually, and the DEP inspects it at least annually. FirstEnergy employees visit the site several times each week, he said. Little Blue Run was built in 1975.

"We take the safety of that facility very seriously," he said. "It's not just up the hill and forgotten about."

Durbin said FirstEnergy sends about 4.2 million cubic yards of ash from the Bruce Mansfield plant to Little Blue Run annually through a seven-mile underground pipe. The inspections haven't found any problems with the earth and rock dam, he said.

An earthen dam at a 40-acre fly ash facility about 35 miles southwest of Knoxville failed about 1 a.m. Tuesday, sending about 2.6 million cubic yards of ash and water into the adjacent community, covering the ground with four to six feet of gray sludge and damaging at least a dozen homes. No injuries or deaths were reported.

The Tennessee Valley Authority uses the containment area for ash from its Kingston power plant. An inspector found a minor leak in the Tennessee dam in October, and smaller seepages were found in 2003 and 2006. The authority said it repaired all three leaks.

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