Largest U.S. Coal Ash Pond to Close, But Future Rules Still Undecided

The shutdown of Pennsylvania’s “Little Blue” coal ash site is a landmark event, but a decision lags on U.S. regulation of one of its largest waste problems.

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.

(Related Quiz: "What You Don't Know About Electricity")

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).

(Related: "Giant Toxic Coal Ash Spill in Tennessee")

"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 Washington, D.C.

Combustion Residue

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.

(Related: "The High Cost of Cheap Coal")

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.

(Related: "Seeking a Safer Future for Electricity's Coal Ash Waste")

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 states.

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.

Aquatic Impact

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 billion.

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 nationwide.

"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 ongoing."

This story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.

Read This Next

The Great Smog of London woke the world to the dangers of coal
Can China's coal capital transform itself into a solar mecca?
Coal Ash Ponds: How Power Companies Get a ‘Bypass’ on Regulations Against Pollution

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet