Largest U.S. Coal Ash Pond to Close, But Future Rules Still
National Geographic News
9 August 2012
By Rachel Cernansky
Neighbors recall promises that the eerie azure lake known as
"Little Blue" would be made into a recreational jewel, complete
with swimming, bike trails, and sailboats.
But the sprawling pond, its blue somewhat faded in recent years,
delivered more blight than benefits to its rural surroundings near
the West Virginia border in southwestern Pennsylvania.
Pennsylvania officials now have initiated shutdown of the facility
south of the Ohio River, one of the largest U.S. impoundments for
waste ash from coal power plants.
Little Blue Run's operator, FirstEnergy, an electricity company
based in Akron, Ohio, agreed to develop a plan to shut down the
facility in a consent decree filed July 27 in federal court. The
Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP)
characterized its agreement with FirstEnergy as a proactive move,
to ensure the site "will not create an imminent and substantial
endangerment to health or the environment." But for years,
neighbors have complained about the site's impact on land, air,
and water, detailing the site history and their woes, for example,
at a 2010 federal hearing on whether the U.S. government should
step in and regulate coal ash as a hazardous waste.
Environmentalists praised the plan to shut down the 1,700-acre
(688-hectare) Little Blue Run, saying it was the first time a
regulatory agency has taken such aggressive action on a coal ash
pond. But the larger question of how the United States will
address coal ash—at 140 million tons a year, one of the nation's
largest waste streams—is still unanswered. Nearly four years
since a dam collapse in Kingston, Tennessee, spilled 1.1 billion
gallons (4 billion liters) of coal ash sludge into the Emory and
Clinch rivers and the surrounding environment, regulations are
stalled at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
"Little Blue is one of hundreds and hundreds of sites like this
throughout the country," said Lisa Widawsky Hallowell, a lawyer
with the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) in
Coal, which for years provided half the electricity in the
United States, doesn't disappear entirely up the smokestack when
it is burned at a power plant. While U.S. reliance on coal is
decreasing in favor of now-cheaper natural gas, there is still the
issue of the leftover "combustion residuals" and ash.
Environmentalists have been warning for decades about the hazard
of coal ash landfills and impoundments. After years of putting off
action, the EPA finally drafted a regulatory proposal in the wake
of the Kingston spill. The agency agreed that coal ash contains
low concentrations of a range of metals that raise health
and environmental concerns, such as arsenic, selenium, cadmium,
lead, and mercury. Without proper protections, these contaminants
can leach into water.
When the Little Blue Run impoundment opened in 1974, it had no
liner to contain the coal ash. The Pennsylvania DEP noted in its
court filing that monitoring at the site indicated that
groundwater degradation "is or may be occurring" due to leaching
from the pond. The toxin arsenic and contaminants such as sulfates
and chlorides were found in groundwater near the impoundment—a
serious concern, because nearby households rely on private wells
for drinking water.
(The pond's sometime iridescent blue color, markedly different
from the earthy hue of the nearby Ohio River, is a matter of some
dispute. NASA, which captured the contrast from the International
Space Station in 2002, attributed it to "materials suspended in
the water." FirstEnergy spokesman Mark Durbin said in a phone
interview that the color was due to "background calcium sulfite"
in the water and the action of light reflection and refraction at
the particular water depth. In any case, he says, as years have
passed, the bright blue has diminished to whitish or gray.)
Over the years, state regulators have dealt with leaks as they
occurred, and have strengthened some requirements; for instance,
current Pennsylvania regulations prohibit construction of new,
unlined residual waste impoundments.
But the U.S. government has been stymied on the question of
whether coal ash should be regulated as a hazardous waste. The EPA
has worked over the years with industry to promote so-called
"beneficial uses" of coal ash, for example, as a binder in
concrete or bricks. Opponents of the hazardous waste designation
say it would discourage such recycling, which would reduce the
need for landfills and waste ponds.
The EPA is weighing two proposed alternatives. One would establish
mandatory federal regulations and phase out surface
impoundments—the type of storage pond at Little Blue Run in
Pennsylvania and at the Tennessee Valley Authority site that
collapsed at Kingston in 2008. The second approach would be to
classify coal ash as nonhazardous, and leave enforcement to the
When asked why a decision still had not been made 26 months after
the EPA first published its two approaches, an agency spokesperson
noted the large amount of public response. "We are reviewing the
more than 450,000 comments received on the proposed rule and will
finalize the rule pending a full evaluation of all the information
and comments," the spokesperson said.
The EIP and ten other environmental groups sued the EPA this past
spring, seeking court intervention to force the agency to act.
Dennis Lemly, a research biologist with the U.S. Forest Service
who has spent decades studying the impacts of coal ash on fish,
thinks that the issue has been an easy one for regulators to put
off; he said contamination and its impacts often go unnoticed
until it's too late. "Unless massive toxicity occurs, no one looks
for it or documents a problem," he said.
Lemly focused much of his research on one such case, a massive
discharge of coal ash into North Carolina's Belews Lake
(pronounced locally as "blues") in the 1970s. Selenium levels in
the lake skyrocketed, and fish were found with misshapen jaws,
visibly curved spines and eyes protruding from the body as though
they were ears. Parent fish accumulated selenium in their bodies
and passed it into their eggs.
Due to this bioaccumulation, says Lemly, adults could swim around
with selenium levels exceeding 5,000 times the original water
concentration and look perfectly normal. But after eggs hatched,
selenium caused tissues and bones to deform in the developing
young fish. Once that happens, they do not usually make it very
long. The pollution ultimately killed off 19 of the 20 species
that lived in the lake.
Lemly laments that, despite the evidence, little has been done to
eliminate or minimize known risks to aquatic life. His concerns
are the focus of a paper he coauthored for an upcoming issue of
the journal Environmental Science and Technology.
Jim Roewer, executive director of the Utility Solid Waste
Activities Group, which represents the power industry on the coal
ash issue, acknowledged the damage that occurred in Belews Lake,
but said it was an extreme example with no parallel today. He said
he disagrees with the contention that substances in coal ash leach
into the environment.
"Coal ash doesn't have that kind of a characteristic. It generally
doesn't go anywhere if proper procedures are put in place," he
said. The utility group opposes regulation of coal ash as a
hazardous waste, and has supported the alternative of leaving
regulation to the states.
One important focus of coal ash research currently under way is
whether coal ash contamination is affecting aquatic systems, even
absent a major spill. There's no question that a catastrophic
collapse like the one at Kingston has a lingering impact. Avner
Vengosh, a Duke University geochemistry professor, was one of a
team of researchers who conducted an 18-month survey after the
spill in Tennessee. The researchers found that, while surface
waters were recovering quicker than many expected, arsenic levels
of up to 2,000 parts per billion had accumulated in the pore
water-water trapped within river-bottom sediment-of downstream
rivers. The EPA's limit to protect aquatic life is 150 parts per
Vengosh's team is now studying the day-to-day impact of the coal
ash waste sites on North Carolina's waterways, where there has not
been a headline-grabbing impoundment failure. He says the
research, which is still under way, is finding elevated levels of
arsenic, selenium, and boron similar to those seen in Tennessee 18
months after the 2008 spill.
"The local environmental agencies, they know about it, it's not
like a pirate discharge," he said. "Because coal ash is not
defined by the EPA as a hazardous waste, there's not any
regulation for effluent generated from coal ash."
According to EIP, groundwater or surface water has been identified
as contaminated in at least 157 coal ash disposal sites
"Regulatory agencies have not heeded the lessons from 45 years of
wildlife poisoning," said Lemly. "One of these days, Belews Lake
may pale in comparison to some of the other damage cases that are
This story is part of a special series that explores energy
issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.