CHESTER - Utility giant FirstEnergy Generation Corp. continues to be in violation of federal and state environmental standards in its operation of the Little Blue Run impoundment, a local environmental group that intends to sue FirstEnergy said Thursday.
The Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Integrity Project, on behalf of the local Little Blue Regional Action Group (LBRAG), sent a notice of intent to sue to FirstEnergy - the second one this year - in the wake of new evidence suggesting there are unhealthy levels of pollutants in Mill Creek, which empties into the Ohio River at the border of Hancock County and Beaver County, Pa.
Water samples collected downstream of where water from Little Blue Run enters Mill Creek revealed concentrations of arsenic and other pollutants at levels that exceed state and federal water quality standards, said Lisa Widawsky Hallowell, an attorney for the Environmental Integrity Project.
"The numbers we found for several pollutants ... show that the levels are high enough that they could pose a substantial hazard to human health or the environment in violation of FirstEnergy's NPDES permit," she said. NPDES stands for National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, a permit system set up by the Clean Water Act for the regulation of "point sources" of pollution.
The samples, taken by an LBRAG member in October, showed eight instances of pollutants exceeding Pennsylvania water quality criteria, four exceeding federal drinking water standards and three exceeding federal health advisories, the environmental groups said.
The samples were taken from an area known as Outfall 021, which is one of several points along Little Blue Run where water is permitted to leave the facility and discharge into Mill Creek and, ultimately, the Ohio River.
But FirstEnergy spokesman Mark Durbin said the concentrations are in compliance with the utility's NPDES permit. "It's something we do monitor and we have a permit for," he said, noting that samples could not have been obtained without trespassing on FirstEnergy property. "The last time I checked, that was illegal."
Durbin said any discharges from Little Blue Run also are covered by FirstEnergy's consent decree with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PDEP) and will be addressed in a closure plan that must be submitted by March 31, 2013.
The consent decree, filed in July as part of a lawsuit in U.S. District Court, mandates that FirstEnergy close Little Blue Run by the end of 2016, devise a plan to clean up contaminated groundwater surrounding the impoundment, monitor surface water, and pay a penalty of $800,000 to PDEP.
Earlier this week, U.S. District Court Judge Nora Berry Fischer signed an amended consent decree, making it binding on FirstEnergy.
"If they violate the terms of the consent decree, we can tell the judge that they're in violation of this legal document. It has a little more weight," Widawsky Hallowell said.
The amended decree has some added provisions, including one that requires FirstEnergy to submit reports about Little Blue Run's closure to Hancock County commissioners and LBRAG, as well as Greene Township, Pa., trustees.
FirstEnergy has used Little Blue Run since 1974 as a disposal facility for scrubber material - coal ash - from the Bruce Mansfield Plant, the largest coal-fired power plant in Pennsylvania. The flue-gas scrubbers and other air pollution controls at the Shippingport, Pa., plant generate coal combustion waste, some of which is thickened into a slurry and sent through a seven-mile pipeline to the impoundment.
Over the years, the coal ash material has accumulated, and the size of the lake has grown. It currently covers about 1,300 acres, straddling the West Virginia-Pennsylvania line. About 40 percent of the impoundment is in Hancock County, just east of Chester.
Hancock County Commissioner Dan Greathouse said he's concerned that FirstEnergy's plan to close Little Blue Run could include the trucking of toxic coal ash material through Hancock County. "It'll be a mess, as well as a health hazard," he said. "We're just concerned that the citizens of Hancock County are protected."
Durbin said FirstEnergy has not announced any plans "of using trucks for the purpose. ... A lot more will be announced when we submit that closure plan. We're looking at a number of things."
Members of LBRAG attended Thursday's county commissioners' meeting to ask commissioners to oppose two pending pieces of legislation in Congress that environmental groups say will make it difficult for the federal government to regulate coal ash impoundments such as Little Blue Run.
"We want the bills to expire," said Lisa Graves-Marcucci, Pennsylvania coordinator of community outreach for the Environmental Integrity Project. "We want to make sure these just wither away and we start fresh in 2013."
The House bill is sponsored by U.S. Rep. David McKinley, R-Charleston, while the Senate bill is co-sponsored by West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin.
Hancock County commissioners voted 3-0 to oppose the legislation. "We have no problem with the coal industry," Greathouse said. "We just want to make sure" the residents around Little Blue Run are protected.