CHESTER - Local concerns about FirstEnergy Corp. expanding or replacing its Little Blue Run impoundment may be moot now that the electric company has announced plans to take its coal ash elsewhere come 2017.
The utility, which operates the Bruce Mansfield Plant in Shippingport, Pa., announced this week that it will not go through with plans to build a coal ash disposal facility adjacent to Little Blue Run once the controversial impoundment is closed in 2016.
Instead, FirstEnergy plans to ship the coal ash via river barge to La Belle, Pa., a tiny community on the Monongahela River, where it will be used as part of a coal mine reclamation project, said FirstEnergy spokesman Mark Durbin.
Yard signs like this one can be seen along Pyramus and Johnsonville roads, in Chester, where residents are concerned about the environmental effects of coal ash being disposed of at the nearby Little Blue Run impoundment. FirstEnergy says it has no plans to expand Little Blue, which is scheduled for closure by the end of 2016. -- Stephen Huba
"Several million tons a year of this material would ultimately go to the mine reclamation site," Durbin said. "It equates to about 45 barges a week."
Durbin said the coal ash, a byproduct of the coal combustion process at the Bruce Mansfield Plant, will be used as fill material at the abandoned coal mine, which will eventually be covered with top soil. FirstEnergy already uses the mine site to dispose of coal ash from its Mitchell Power Station in Courtney, Pa.
Transporting the coal ash by barge along the Ohio and Monongahela rivers will be cheaper than building a new, smaller disposal facility adjacent to Little Blue Run in Greene Township, Pa., Durbin said. About 40 percent of the impoundment is in Hancock County.
Residents in the Lawrenceville area of Hancock County have been concerned about FirstEnergy's alternate plans for coal ash disposal, including the possible expansion of Little Blue Run, since 2011. The local Little Blue Regional Action Group, with the help of the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Integrity Project, has sought to draw attention to what it considers the environmental hazards of coal ash.
But Durbin said FirstEnergy's new disposal plan is not the result of public pressure.
"It's strictly a business decision," he said.
FirstEnergy Generation President James Lash described the decision as an economic one "based on the costs of barging the material to a third-party site compared to permitting and constructing an expanded disposal facility. ..."
FirstEnergy has informed the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and the Army Corps of Engineers that it will withdraw its previously submitted permit applications seeking to expand Little Blue Run.
"After conducting a detailed review of future disposal options beyond Little Blue Run, the decision was made to beneficially use this CCB material for an existing mine reclamation project," Lash said.
CCBs, or coal combustion byproducts, are the waste material that's created when scrubber technology is used to remove sulfur dioxide from coal emissions. The coal ash is thickened into a slurry and sent through a seven-mile, underground pipeline to the impoundment, which has been in use since 1974 and has grown to about 1,300 acres.
Not all the coal ash from the Bruce Mansfield Plant goes to the impoundment, however. Approximately 450,000 tons a year are converted into synthetic gypsum and sent across the street to the National Gypsum plant for use in the manufacture of drywall, Durbin said.
"We're always looking for other options to reuse the material," he said.
Despite the 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 ground water contamination.
In Lawrenceville, FirstEnergy has installed a series of pumping stations to monitor the ground water and remove seepages from residential neighborhoods in the vicinity of Little Blue Run.
The latest decision follows a consent decree reached between FirstEnergy and PDEP that requires the utility to discontinue the disposal of wet coal ash material at Little Blue Run after Dec. 31, 2016. The material that will be sent up-river will have a dry consistency thanks to a de-watering facility that will be built sometime in 2014 or 2015, Durbin said.
Hancock County Commissioner Jeff Davis said he was heartened by the news, which he heard at a meeting hosted by FirstEnergy on Tuesday.
"I was extremely pleased to hear that they have no plans of expanding Little Blue, either in Pennsylvania or West Virginia. That certainly was a concern of ours," Davis said. "Great news."
According to the consent decree, FirstEnergy must submit a closure plan for Little Blue Run by March 31.
"We have no intention of walking away from that facility," Durbin said. "It would be a matter of how we would properly close it."
The closure plan will include a study of the future ground water impact of the coal ash in and around the facility, Durbin said.
But Lisa Graves Marcucci, EIP's Pennsylvania coordinator for community outreach, said FirstEnergy's announcement is not all good news.
"They're basically taking the same ash with the same toxins and pollutants and proposing to transfer it along a major water source and then want to dump it in another unlined pit," she said. "I'm concerned that we're transferring the risks from one community to another."
Marcucci said FirstEnergy's plan is a "victory for the communities that have already been impacted by Little Blue" and a concession to the growing body of evidence that coal ash is hazardous when disposed of improperly.
"The facts are pretty clear that there is a pollution problem," she said.
(Huba can be contacted at email@example.com)