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Pennsylvania's Little Blue Run Coal Ash Pit Among the Most Dangerous

Nov 5, 2010 | Parker Waichman LLP

Environmental advocates are warning that a massive coal ash disposal site in western Pennsylvania is a danger to people in three sites. Little Blue Run, an industrial waste pit operated by First Energy Corp. in Beaver County, Pennsylvania was recently dubbed one of the worst coal ash disposal sites in the nation in a report compiled by several environmental groups. They say it is a disaster waiting to happen.

At 1,300 acres, Little Blue Run is 30-times larger than another coal ash pit that burst near Kingston, Tennessee and engulfed that town in December 2008. Located in Pennsylvania, Little Blue Run boarders Ohio, and extends into West Virginia. For more than three decades, Little Blue Run has served as the repository for fly ash produced from the Bruce Mansfield Power Plant seven miles away. At full capacity, the three plants that make up the Bruce Mansfield complex produce four million gallons of coal slurry daily. The dam holding back the waste in Little Blue Run is the largest earthen damn in the country.  

A report entitled “In Harm’s Way” compiled by the Environmental Integrity Project, Sierra Club and Earth Justice ranked Little Blue Run 29 on its list of the 39 most hazardous coal ash disposal sites in the nation. According to the report, Little Blue Run contains dangerous chemicals and metals like arsenic and lead. Little Blue Run also leads all other sites in the country in selenium, a chemical highly toxic to fish. According to the report, First Energy dumped 167,000 pounds of selenium in Little Blue between 2000 and 2006.

People living downwind of Little Blue Run say it’s not unusual to see powdery white coal ash on their grass and flowers. There are concerns that the toxic substances in Little Blue Run could be leaching into ground water, and some people in the area report that their well water has tested positive for arsenic. They have reason to worry. According to some studies, the risk of cancer can be as high as 1 in 50 for people living near unlined coal ash pits.

Even worse, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Little Blue is one of 49 sites around the country whose dam currently has a High Hazard Potential rating, meaning that if it were to rupture, it would result in probable loss of life, largely to communities across the river in Ohio.

Unfortunately, there are no federal controls over coal ash. Twenty states don’t bother to regulate coal ash at all, and of those that do, oversight can be spotty. The EPA is currently mulling stricter regulation of coal ash, and two options are under discussion. One would label it a hazardous waste, subjecting it to federal oversight. The other, however, would label coal ash household waste, which would put it under state control.

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