Energy Roundup: Headlines Fired Up Over Coal, Coal Waste, Natural Gas

  • Little Blue Run, shown from above, holds coal combustion waste. Photo: Google Earth

  • Marcia Hughes, who lives near Little Blue Run, says she buys water for drinking and cooking because of concerns about health issues related to the site. Photo: Kate Malongowski

  • Coal-fired power plants create coal ash and scrubber sludge waste which has been polluting water across the country. Photo: Ed Whitaker

August 16, 2013

Locally and nationally, energy issues have been hot items in the headlines. 

Environmental issues have been getting more attention from the federal government, with President Barack Obama's latest appointments.  Gina McCarthy, a strong advocate of air quality, was confirmed as head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and Denis McDonough, Obama’s latest chief of staff, has a track record of letting people know climate change is a threat to the nation and a top priority.  

Obama has shown a keen interest in advocating natural gas as an energy source.

Meanwhile, some members of the Democratic legislative caucus, like Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, think the Obama administration is too focused on natural gas. Manchin says turning to gas threatens jobs in West Virginia and other areas that rely on coal.

Manchin and others met recently with McCarthy to express their frustration over what they perceive as a “war on coal.”

“It wasn’t just people [saying] 'Oh, we’re mad and we’re upset with what you’re doing to us and poor us,'” says Manchin. “The bottom line is 'Poor this country if we’re not able to do the job that we do in West Virginia and do so well to provide reliable, dependable and affordable energy.'”

Although the longterm future of coal may be in doubt, there are still many issues related to coal that are in the news. The EPA has proposed new steps to keep coal sludge and fly ash from getting into waterways. Fly ash is made up of the fine particles that are released from the combustion of coal in power plants, and the “scrubber sludge” is what’s left over from cleaning these emissions.Under a court mandate, the agency is required to enact new regulations on large power plants by 2014.

EPA's plan is estimated to reduce water pollution discharges, which can include mercury, lead, selenium, arsenic, and cadmium, by 470 million pounds a year. A White House recommendation, however, would exempt sludge from power plant smokestack scrubbers, which were not in use when the Clean Water Act regulations for power plants were put into place.

Lisa Graves-Marcucci of the Environmental Integrity Project, believes that by exempting the smokestack scrubber waste, the White House is out of line.

“The EPA is the agency that has the scientists that understand these metals and these pollutants better than anyone else.  And when we have policymakers stepping in to do regulation, it’s problematic for a number of reasons.  Primary is the fact that they’re not qualified," Graves-Marcucci says. "I think it is really foolhardy for folks to interfere with  a process where science matters, because science is what’s in place to protect public health.”

There are more than 38 sites nationwide that have contaminated water with coal sludge and fly ash. One of these sites, Hatfield's Ferry power plant, was slated to close in October after an announcement by FirstEnergy that the plant would be closed due to the cost of maintaining it. The closing is now in question, however, with concerns over power grid reliability.

Pennsylvania has a cavalier attitude about how coal waste is handled, according to Graves-Marcucci.  She says a prime example of this is in LaBelle, PA. Residents were already concerned about what they view as illegal dumping and mismanagement of a mine reclamation site.  Now they are also worried about new plans agreed to by FirstEnergy and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, that would allow for uncovered fly ash and sludge to be transported to LaBelle from a coal ash impoundment 80 miles away. 

Meanwhile, a public hearing was held this week about FirstEnergy's plans to close Little Blue Run, another big unlined pond holding coal waste that straddles Beaver County, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.  About three million gallons of waste slurry are pumped into Little Blue daily.  Portions of that unlined, uncovered site are a Caribbean-type blue-green color.  

On Thursday night at the Hookstown Fire Department, First Energy laid out a 15-year plan to close Little Blue, sealing it off by covering the 950 acres with synthetic liner and topsoil from FirstEnergy's property, at a rate of 65 acres per year.

Some 100 residents attended, and about a dozen spoke publicly. Many residents weren't pleased with the timeline of the plan. 

"For the closure to take that long, how many people are going to be affected in the meantime?" asked resident Marcia Hughes, who buys water because she is concerned about the safety of the local water, due to Blue Run. "Who's going to come in and buy our homes? You don't want contaminated water." 

Michael Forbeck, DEP regional manager for waste management also attended the meeting.

"It's not a simple process," he said about closing the site. Resdients have "lived with this since 1975....To close this properly it may take up to 15 years. I would like to see it sooner than later, that is something we will be evaluating. You can't just flip a switch. They have to have all the infrastructure in place."

Allegheny Front reporter Kate Malongowski also provided information for this story.