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Citizens plan suit against Hancock coal-ash dam

Read more: http://blogs.wvgazette.com/coaltattoo/

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Local citizens on Wednesday threatened to sue FirstEnergy Corp. over a huge coal-ash impoundment along the West Virginia-Pennsylvania border, alleging the operation is polluting area streams, tainting groundwater, and violating federal waste disposal requirements.

The Little Blue Regional Action Group sent Akron, Ohio-based FirstEnergy a formal notice of intent to sue the company over what is believed to be the largest such coal-ash disposal site in the nation.

"There is nothing 'little' about Little Blue Run," said Curt Havens, vice president of the citizen group. "It is a prime example of how communities like ours can be polluted by toxic coal ash."

The 1,000-acre Little Blue Run Coal Ash Impoundment operates under Pennsylvania state environmental permits, but stretches across the border into West Virginia near Chester in Hancock County.

FirstEnergy pumps various coal-combustion wastes from its Bruce Mansfield Power Plant in Shippingport, Pa., through a seven-mile pipeline to the Little Blue Run facility.

The facility is unlined, meaning there is no barrier to prevent pollution from the coal ash from reaching groundwater. More than 20 billion gallons of coal ash are held back from the Ohio River by only an earth-and-rock dam.

In their notice of intent to sue, the citizen groups allege ongoing violations of pollution limits for toxic selenium and born, contamination of groundwater and surface waters with arsenic and manganese, failure to report toxic releases from the impoundment and other violations of state and federal water quality and waste-handling laws.

The notice cited potential damage to local wildlife, concern about water well contamination, and a piecemeal approach by FirstEnergy to responding to the problems. It said the company's strategy "has proved to be as ineffective as placing a band-aid on a gaping wound."

"Little Blue Run is a throwback to the times when waste was disposed of in open pits with no cover or liner to prevent pollution," said Richard Webster, a Public Justice lawyer who, along with the Environmental Integrity Project, represents local residents.

"It has slipped through the cracks in state and federal regulation of coal ash," Webster said. "We have therefore been forced to resort to legal action to protect the local citizens and the environment."

FirstEnergy spokesman Mark Durbin said the company believes that Little Blue Run is in compliance with all federal and state environmental rules, but that FirstEnergy has proposed a new, more modern facility for when waste-disposal permits there expire in 2016.

The new facility would be smaller -- about 220 acres -- and would dispose of power plant ash in a dry form, rather than as a wet form of waste like Little Blue Run, Durbin said.

In the national debate over coal-ash disposal, Little Blue Run has taken center stage, in large part because it's located in the district of Rep. David McKinley, a West Virginia Republican who has pushed to block new federal regulation of the material.

No single national program sets up a concrete regulatory plan for the handling of the tens of millions of tons of various coal ashes power plants generate every year. The issue simmered for years, with little focus from political leaders, until a spill of a billion gallons of coal ash from a Tennessee Valley Authority site in eastern Tennessee in December 2008.

The Obama administration promised action and proposed new rules, but has so far not finalized those measures or said when it might do so. Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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