Neighbors of Little Blue Run upset

CHESTER – Some Hancock County neighbors of FirstEnergy’s Little Blue Run impoundment would like to push two coal ash bills pending in Congress off a cliff.

The bills – H.R. 2273 and S.B. 3512 – would allow states to regulate the disposal of coal ash waste through permit programs in a manner similar to the regulation of municipal waste landfills. U.S. Rep. David McKinley, R-Wheeling, is the chief sponsor of the House bill, while U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., is a co-sponsor of the Senate bill.

Both bills would amend the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, which regulates the disposal of hazardous and non-hazardous waste. The bills’ stated purpose is to “facilitate recovery and beneficial use, and provide for the proper management and disposal, of materials generated by the combustion of coal and other fossil fuels.”

But environmental groups, including the local Little Blue Run Regional Action Group, criticize the legislation as a “step backward” in the Environmental Protection Agency’s ongoing effort to promulgate rules for the disposal of coal ash.

“Other (environmental) laws have provisions that put into place environmental and health-based standards. These do not,” said Lisa Graves-Marcucci, Pennsylvania coordinator of community outreach for the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Integrity Project.

Graves-Marcucci said McKinley’s bill is designed to weaken federal oversight of coal ash disposal practices and “keeps the states in charge. … It’s a departure from the way other federal environmental standards are written, and it’s a horrible step backward.”

Graves-Marcucci recently attended a meeting of Hancock County commissioners with Pyramus Road residents Curtis and Debbie Havens and other members of LBRAG to ask commissioners to oppose McKinley’s bill in writing. Commissioners voted 3-0 to send letters to McKinley and Manchin saying they oppose the legislation.

Environmental groups, which usually prefer a stronger role for the EPA in the enforcement of environmental regulations, cite a recent report by the non-partisan Congressional Research Service to bolster their opposition to McKinley’s bill.

The CRS analysis faults the House and Senate bills for, among other things, giving states too broad discretion in adopting a permit program or applying federal standards for the disposal of coal ash, also known as coal combustion residuals.

“Regardless of whether a state chose to adopt a CCR permit program, EPA would have no authority to compel states to adopt and implement the program according to provisions in the proposed amendments to RCRA,” the analysis said.

The CRS report calls the bills’ approach to regulating coal ash “unprecedented” in environmental law, unclear and ambiguous. “Neither … includes provisions comparable to those proposed by EPA … to regulate landfills and other surface impoundments that receive CCR,” it said.

FirstEnergy Generation Corp. has used the Little Blue Run impoundment since 1974 as a disposal facility for scrubber material – coal ash – from the Bruce Mansfield Plant, one of the largest coal-fired power plants in the country. The flue-gas scrubbers and other air pollution controls at the Shippingport, Pa., plant generate coal combustion waste, some of which is thickened into a slurry and sent through a 7-mile-long pipeline to the impoundment.

Over the years, the coal ash material has accumulated, and the size of the lake has grown. It currently covers about 1,300 acres, straddling the West Virginia-Pennsylvania line. About 40 percent of the impoundment is in Hancock County, just east of Chester.

Environmental groups and Lawrenceville residents who live near Little Blue Run say toxins from the impoundment are leaching into area ground water and surface water, creating a health hazard.

Graves-Marcucci said she hopes the two bills die with the 112th Congress. “So far, we’re hearing that nothing is imminent at this point, and we hope it stays that way and that we can get a fresh start in 2013,” she said.

In the 113th Congress, McKinley, in addition to serving on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, will sit on the Subcommittee on Environment and the Economy. The subcommittee focuses on issues such as chemical reform, coal ash regulation, natural gas drilling and industrial plant security.

McKinley’s office could not be reached for comment.