CHESTER - Lawrenceville neighbors of the Little Blue Run impoundment are closely following developments in Washington, D.C., that could determine the future of how coal ash disposal practices are regulated.
U.S. Rep. David McKinley, R-Wheeling, has garnered support for an amendment to the transportation bill that would put regulation of coal ash disposal and recycling in the hands of the states. The amendment is similar to a coal ash bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in October. The U.S. Senate has yet to take action on the bill.
On Thursday, the House passed a non-binding motion supporting McKinley's amendment and its inclusion in the transportation bill. A House-Senate conference committee has until the end of the month to hash out a compromise on the transportation bill.
Environmental groups, including the local Little Blue Regional Action Group, have lined up against McKinley's amendment, saying that it undermines the Obama administration's efforts to establish national standards for coal ash disposal through the Environmental Protection Agency.
Longtime Chester resident Curtis Havens, vice president of the Little Blue Regional Action Group, wants the EPA to promulgate new rules that would treat coal ash as a hazardous waste. McKinley cites studies that say that coal ash is not only non-hazardous but also beneficial for the environment - if mixed with concrete that is used to build roads and bridges.
"Congressman McKinley needs to start listening to his constituents more and stop talking for and supporting polluters like First Energy's Little Blue Run dump site," Havens said. "We need federal rules that require states to clean up coal ash pollution and prevent it from happening again."
First Energy has used Little Blue Run since the mid-1970s as a disposal facility for scrubber material - coal ash - from the Bruce Mansfield Plant, a coal-fired power plant in Shippingport, Pa. Coal ash, or coal combustion residuals, is the byproduct that results when pulverized coal is burned. The waste material is disposed of by being pumped to Little Blue Run via a seven-mile pipeline.
Little Blue Run operates under Pennsylvania environmental regulations but straddles the Pennsylvania-West Virginia line. About 40 percent of the impoundment is in Hancock County, just east of Chester.
Havens and other residents of Lawrenceville have complained to FirstEnergy for years about the public health threat posed by the fact that coal ash toxins can seep through the unlined bottom of Little Blue Run. FirstEnergy has set up pumping stations in the residential area to catch the seepage, but Havens doesn't believe they're adequate.
"It's just a Band-Aid solution, like recycling water," said Havens, a retired postal worker whose Pyramus Road home is 1,200 feet from Little Blue Run.
Havens was a signatory to a letter dated June 5 asking the conference committee to reject the McKinley amendment. "Without national disposal standards, this voluminous waste will continue to be dumped in immense unlined ponds," the letter said. "The nation's hundreds of coal ash ponds are subject to life-threatening catastrophic spills. ..."
The letter cited the example of Tennessee Valley Authority's impoundment pond in Kingston, Tenn., which released 1.1 billion gallons of wet coal ash on Dec. 22, 2008, destroying homes and property. Cleanup from that disaster is expected to continue into 2014.
Members of the Little Blue Regional Action Group met earlier this week in Hookstown, Pa., with Lisa Widawsky, an attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project, a Washington, D.C.-based public interest law firm, to discuss McKinley's legislation.
"McKinley's bill would forever prohibit the EPA from regulating coal ash," Widawsky said. "It's very important that that bill does not pass. It would be extremely detrimental to (Lawrenceville) and other communities that have coal-ash disposal facilities."
Widawsky said McKinley's amendment would result in coal ash being treated no more stringently than "average household waste." What's more, states would not be required to adopt the coal ash disposal guidelines, she said.
McKinley spokesman Jim Forbes did not return phone calls seeking comment, but McKinley's position is that there is no scientific consensus about coal ash as a hazardous material. What's more, regulating it as a hazardous material through the EPA could cost 316,000 jobs in the construction industry, McKinley has said.
In March, McKinley met with the Havenses and expressed concerns in a letter to West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Randy Huffman that FirstEnergy's pump system was not correcting the seepage problem.
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