The battle over how to regulate coal ash impoundments like Hancock County's Little Blue Run heated up again Thursday with the passage of U.S. Rep. David McKinley's bill concerning coal ash recycling and disposal.
At issue in the debate over McKinley's bill, which passed the House of Representatives with bipartisan support by a vote of 265 to 155, is who should have the authority - the states or the Environmental Protection Agency - to regulate utilities and other producers of coal ash.
McKinley, R-Wheeling, whose district includes Hancock County, said Thursday that his bill would clear the way for more recycling and reuse of coal ash byproducts and would strengthen states' ability to control the disposal of coal ash.
IMPOUNDMENT — Little Blue Run, the 1,300-acre impoundment on the Pennsylvania-West Virginia border, is used by FirstEnergy Generation Corp. for the disposal of coal ash byproduct material. About 40 percent of the impoundment is in Hancock County. -- Stephen Huba
SCRUBBERS — These sulfur dioxide scrubbers were installed as original equipment at the Bruce Mansfield Plant in Shippingport, Pa., the largest coal-fired power plant operated by FirstEnergy Generation Corp.
"For 33 years Congress has wrestled with how to deal with coal ash but has failed to find an answer," McKinley said. "The bill that passed the House today is a common sense solution for how to recycle and dispose of this unavoidable byproduct of burning coal."
The Coal Residuals Reuse and Management Act would establish a state-based permit program for coal ash disposal facilities such as Little Blue Run and would effectively end the EPA's efforts to promulgate stricter rules for the regulation of coal ash impoundments.
Environmental groups want the EPA to define coal ash as a hazardous waste, but McKinley, while acknowledging a place for EPA oversight, has said such a designation would hurt efforts by private industries to recycle and reuse coal ash - in everything from road construction materials to wallboard.
Little Blue Run is the name of the impoundment used by FirstEnergy Generation Corp. to dispose of the coal ash that is generated by the Bruce Mansfield Plant in Shippingport, Pa. The coal-fired power plant is FirstEnergy's largest and, at full capacity, can produce 59 million kilowatt hours of electricity daily.
FirstEnergy, which has been disposing of coal ash in the unlined impoundment since 1974, is under court order to close Little Blue Run by the end of 2016. The court order is the result of a consent decree that FirstEnergy reached with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection last year.
FirstEnergy spokeswoman Jennifer Young said McKinley's bill will not directly affect Little Blue Run but that FirstEnergy "supports legislation classifying coal combustion residuals as non-hazardous. Today's House vote is an encouraging first step in allowing states to continue their own non-hazardous permitting and beneficial use programs for this material."
Coal ash is the waste material that results when scrubber technology is used to remove sulfur dioxide from coal emissions. The scrubber material is mixed with lime and other agents, thickened into a slurry and sent through a seven-mile, underground pipeline to Little Blue Run, which straddles the Pennsylvania-West Virginia border and has grown to about 1,300 acres over the years. About 900 acres is used for actual coal ash disposal.
Young said FirstEnergy also sells more than 20 percent of its coal ash for reuse. At the Bruce Mansfield Plant, an estimated 450,000 tons of the scrubber material is converted annually 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 EPA 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.
Over the years, residents of Lawrenceville and other neighboring communities have complained of environmental and health problems that they say are the result of coal ash toxins seeping into the area groundwater. In 2012, the Little Blue Regional Action Group joined with several Washington, D.C.-based groups and threatened to sue FirstEnergy.
The PDEP complaint that accompanied the 2012 consent decree stated that 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. The complaint also noted the presence of arsenic in the groundwater near the impoundment.
Such public health threats are not treated seriously by McKinley's bill, said Lisa Graves Marcucci, Pennsylvania community outreach coordinator for the D.C.-based Environmental Integrity Project.
Marcucci said the bill "lacks clear purpose. It doesn't ensure the minimum safeguards that guarantee public health. ... This bill would keep the status quo, which has failed the people of West Virginia, including those in the Lawrenceville area."
In June, Marcucci told Hancock County commissioners that the bill "still falls woefully short of providing much-needed federal protections from polluting coal ash dumps like Little Blue Run." She said the bill, among other things, has too many loopholes, gives states too much leeway and lacks the legal language necessary to protect public health.
"What we want is the scientists at the EPA to make the determination as to what is safe. ... This bill is not based on science. This bill doesn't have anything to do with science," she said.
But McKinley said the bill, an updated version of one he sponsored last year, incorporates feedback from the EPA. "The Obama administration and EPA have indicated they would not oppose the legislation," he said. "It's time for the Senate to act and finally resolve this issue."
(Huba can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)