CHESTER - Closing the Little Blue Run coal ash impoundment will involve covering 900 acres of it with a synthetic liner, topsoil and vegetation, a FirstEnergy spokesman said.
One of the primary goals of the voluminous closure plan, submitted to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection on Friday, is to prevent stormwater from seeping into the coal ash byproduct material being stored at Little Blue Run, spokesman Mark Durbin said.
"If (water) works its way into the topsoil, it would hit the liner and be wicked away so it won't mix with the coal combustion byproducts that are already in the ground," Durbin said. "The liner separates the coal combustion byproducts from any new moisture that comes in."
READY TO CLOSE — This file photo shows a portion of the Little Blue Run coal ash impoundment, about 40 percent of which is located in Hancock County. FirstEnergy, the owner of the impoundment, submitted a closure plan for the site with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection on Friday. -- File photo
FirstEnergy Generation Corp., operator of the coal-fired Bruce Mansfield Plant in Shippingport, Pa., submitted the closure plan as part of a legal agreement, known as a consent decree, that it reached with PDEP last year. The consent decree requires that FirstEnergy stop disposing of wet coal ash material in the unlined impoundment by Dec. 31, 2016.
While the closure plan is not yet available online, Durbin said it soon will be posted to the FirstEnergy website. Deadline for its submission to the state was March 31.
Durbin said Little Blue Run, about 40 percent of which lies in Hancock County, will continue to be used for the disposal of coal ash from the Bruce Mansfield Plant until the closure date. In 2017, FirstEnergy plans to start shipping the coal combustion waste via river barge to a mine reclamation site in LaBelle, Pa.
"Our goal would be to use Little Blue Run as long as we can, assuming there's space there," Durbin said.
FirstEnergy has been using the impoundment for coal ash disposal purposes since it was permitted in 1974. Also known as coal combustion byproducts, the waste material results when scrubber technology is used to remove sulfur dioxide from coal emissions.
The coal ash is mixed with lime and other materials, thickened into a slurry and sent through a seven-mile, underground pipeline to the impoundment, which has grown to about 1,700 acres over the years. About 900 acres is used for actual coal ash disposal, Durbin said.
Some of the coal ash - about 450,000 tons a year - is converted into synthetic gypsum and sent across the street to the National Gypsum plant for use in the manufacture of drywall.
Despite such beneficial uses, the Environmental Protection Agency and environmental groups say coal ash, when disposed of in unlined surface impoundments such as Little Blue Run, poses an environmental hazard because of the potential for groundwater contamination.
Some environmental groups consider coal ash a hazardous material that should be regulated by the EPA as such. Residents of Lawrenceville and other areas surrounding Little Blue Run have complained of environmental and health problems that they say are the result of coal ash toxins seeping into the area groundwater.
"A potential ... exists for contaminants from the solid waste within the impoundment to move into groundwater and surface waters near the site," according to the PDEP civil complaint that accompanied the consent decree.
The complaint said calcium, sulfates, chlorides and "other groundwater constituents" have been found at certain locations near Little Blue Run, indicating that contaminants from solid waste within the impoundment have been entering the groundwater. It also noted the presence of arsenic in the groundwater near the impoundment.
Durbin said the closure plan submitted on Friday also includes the continuation of FirstEnergy's groundwater monitoring activities, quarterly reconnaissance reports and well water monitoring.
"It's a rather massive undertaking, but we think we have a plan in place that will make it work," he said. "We'll continue to keep an eye on the Lawrenceville area and deal with the drinking water issues. It's a comprehensive agreement, and the actual closure plan is just part of that overall agreement."
Once FirstEnergy stops using Little Blue Run for coal ash disposal, the process of closing it begins. Covering it with liner, top soil and vegetation is a process that will be done in phases and could take up to 15 years, Durbin said.
"That 900 acres translates into about 682 football fields. It's a huge area," he said, noting that topsoil will be obtained from surrounding land that has been acquired by FirstEnergy. Durbin would not rule out further land acquisition in the future.
A small portion of the impoundment adjacent to the dam will be kept open for runoff and drainage purposes, he said.
As for the waste material that's already in the impoundment, Durbin said it could harden into a thicker consistency over time.
(Huba can be contacted at email@example.com)