Pennsylvania Regulators Fast Track Coal Ash Disposal Plans Despite Flaws
By Sharon Kelly
Across the U.S., the shale rush has unleashed a frenzy of excitement about domestic energy supplies. But the oil and gas produced from fracking comes along with billions of gallons of wastewater and tons of mud and rock that carry radioactive materials and heavy metals. As problems with disposal mount, the industry has offered mostly vague promises of “recycling” to describe how the waste will be handled over the long run.
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As the nation gears up to produce vast amounts of shale oil and gas—and the toxic waste that comes along with it—it’s worth taking a look back at the failures of another industry to handle its toxic waste responsibly—the coal industry.
Communities across America are still struggling to resolve problems left behind decades ago from coal mining and related industrial pollution.
These aren’t merely yesterday’s problems—the ash from burning coal at coal-fired power plants remains the single largest waste stream in the U.S.
In Pennsylvania, state officials have begun to quietly fast-track plans to allow barges to haul 3.5 million tons a year of hazardous coal ash from one disposal site to a new one, despite objections from the state's environmental regulators describing the disposal plans as seriously deficient.
The hazards of shipping the coal ash in rivers are similar to those associated with fracking waste. A spill could directly pollute the rivers that serve as drinking water supplies to millions with an entire barge full of the heavy-metal laden waste. And with coal ash, there are unique hazards—there are no rules that would require the ash to be hauled in covered barges to prevent the arsenic- and mercury-laced dust from blowing into rivers and onto neighboring communities, according to Coast Guard officials.
And, the state still lacks a long-term plan for how to safely handle the coal waste without polluting air or water once the barges arrive at their desination.
For decades, entranced by economic benefits of mining and burning coal, state and federal regulators allowed coal giants to put off dealing with their toxic waste—with the result that these waste piles and pits have grown to enormous proportions.
Since 1974, coal company FirstEnergy has mixed ash and scrubber waste from its Bruce Mansfield power plant in Shippingport, PA, with water and pumped it via pipeline to an enormous lagoon called Little Blue Run. Little Blue Run is now the nation's largest unlined wastewater pit, spanning two states and bordering a third. Under orders to close the pit down and clean up Little Blue Run, FirstEnergy must now tackle the enormous challenge of clean up.
Early indicators suggest that state regulators may once again kick the can down the road. Currently FirstEnergy plans to ship its waste from Little Blue Run to another unlined disposal site, the La Belle coal mine waste dump in Luzerne Township, PA. This is a site where residents have long complained of a litany of health problems they say are tied to the coal waste.
FirstEnergy’s plan has drawn fire from a broad array of community groups. Even the state’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has voiced concerns. In October, the DEP sent a 29-page letter to FirstEnergy, detailing more than 100 problems with the company’s plan to empty Little Blue Run, cap the site with a foot of soil and leave much of the ash buried with no liner below to keep water from washing heavy metals downwards towards the water table. The rest will be shipped to Luzerne.
Nonetheless, the state has moved behind the scenes to grease the wheels for FirstEnergy. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, FirstEnergy’s barging plan “could be approved by the state before the public gets a chance to fully comment on important parts of the proposal, according to four environmental organizations.”
The barging permit is being pushed through in what lawyers for the groups say is a break with precedent. "For some reason FirstEnergy doesn't want to say in the general permit what it's going to do with the waste, and DEP seems to be taking the position that the permit doesn't require that,” Alayne Gobeille, an Environmental Integrity Project attorney told the paper. "But that's different from my understanding of the general permit provisions and different than what DEP required in the past."
The contractor that FirstEnergy plans to use to barge the waste from Little Blue Run to La Belle has a long history of environmental violations. In March, the Environmental Integrity Project and Public Justice announced a lawsuit against the contractor, Matt Canestrale Contracting Inc., over improper disposal of tons of coal-ash waste at the La Belle coal mine dump.
That contractor has even previously sunk a barge carrying coal waste at that very same La Belle site. On May 16, 2006 at approximately 1:30 a.m., a 24-inch gash from a submerged mooring ring caused a Matt Canestrale barge carrying more than one thousand tons of coal waste to sink in the Monongahela River. This sent a plume of more than 35 tons of the coal waste into the river, which serves as a drinking water source for Pittsburgh and other towns.
The company’s slow response to the spill prompted the DEP to send a Jan. 2, 2007 letter to the company complaining. Their employees, “seemed unaware that a spill to the Monongahela River needed to be properly remediated and reported to the Department,” the letter said, adding that that the company’s clean-up methods used after the spill were “inadequate.”
FirstEnergy’s plan calls for Matt Canestrale to haul 45 barge loads a day from Little Blue Run to the La Belle site starting as soon as next year.
The health hazards from coal ash are increasingly drawing attention from federal regulators, as evidence of its toxicity slowly mounts, but locals say the problems in their community are already clear.
"We’ve had problems with cancer and everything else," Luzerne Township Supervisor Ted Kollar told CBS News, describing how the coal ash already stored in La Belle has affected his town.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is currently considering a move to label coal ash hazardous waste, which would bring it under federal oversight through the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.
Pennsylvania regulators have opposed that plan, saying it would complicate efforts like FirstEnergy's plan to empty Little Blue Run. In October, then-head of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, Michael Krancer, sent a letter to the EPA in opposition.
"Jumping the gun to regulate coal ash as hazardous waste would actually be environmentally detrimental," Krancer wrote. "We have particular concern on that front here in Pennsylvania, since it would block the use of coal ash for beneficial reuse for such uses as, among other things, abandoned mine reclamation and acid mine drainage remediation."
But lawyers say using coal ash to reclaim unlined mines is just mixing two wastes together and calling it clean.
"Dumping coal ash onto unlined gob piles is not a solution to mine drainage pollution and isn’t fair to communities living near these sites," said Gobeille. "It doesn’t make sense to ship the same toxic waste Pennsylvania acknowledges is a threat to health and the environment at the Little Blue Run impoundment to an unlined mine dump and call it beneficial."
Despite the state’s struggle to handle the billions of gallons of waste produced by coal plants, state officials are doubling down on fossil fuels and demonizing anyone who parts company with them.
In June, Gov. Corbett (R-PA) issued a statement in response to President Obama’s climate change proposal, calling it "not only a war on coal, as suggested by a White House climate adviser, but also a war on jobs."
The governor also recently spoke at a shale gas industry conference in Pittsburgh, where he similarly focused on fracking jobs rather than public health impacts. "The opponents of drilling have really become what I would call economic change deniers," he told the crowd.
Of course, the question remains whether, decades from now when the jobs are largely gone, the accumulated waste from both fracking and coal ash will still be plaguing the state and its residents.
In the meantime, the wastewater from both industries continues to flow.
Visit EcoWatch’s COAL page for more related news on this topic.
Typhoon Molave is expected to make landfall in Vietnam on Wednesday with 90 mph winds and heavy rainfall that could lead to flooding and landslides, according to the U.S. Embassy and U.S. Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City. To prepare for the powerful storm that already tore through the Philippines, Vietnam is making plans to evacuate nearly 1.3 million people along the central coast, as Reuters reported.
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A stretch of coastline in the Philippine capital, Manila has received backlash from environmentalists. The heavily polluted Manila Bay area, which had been slated for cleanup, has become the site of a controversial 500-meter (1,600-foot) stretch of white sand beach.
Sand Makeup Crucial for Ecosystems<p>While UNEP/GRID-Geneva generally supports finding <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/not-enough-sand-for-construction-industry-despite-abundance/a-49342942" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">alternative sources of sand</a> so as not to disrupt ecosystems in rivers and oceans when extracting them, Vander Velpen stressed it was vital to use sand which closely matches the makeup of the native sand to protect beach fauna.</p><p>"If you change the core characteristics of the native sand, the original sand, you need to do an environmental impact assessment (EIA) to find out how it's going to impact the ecosystem and nearby ecosystems," he told DW.</p><p>But according to Torres, such an assessment was not done in Manila.</p>
Beautification Stunt Instead of Proper Cleanup?<p>Manila Bay's waters are heavily polluted by oil and trash from nearby residential areas and ports. A huge "No swimming" sign warns visitors to stay away from the ocean.</p><p>Philippines' <a href="https://denr.gov.ph/index.php/priority-programs/manila-bay-clean-up/25-priority-programs/1825-frequently-ask-questions-faqs-on-the-dolomite-and-the-beach-nourishment-project" target="_blank">Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR)</a> has denied dolomite sand poses any risk to human health and the ecosystem.</p><p>However, scientists of the University of the Philippines have come forward disputing the DENR's claims. A <a href="https://biology.science.upd.edu.ph/index.php/ib-statement-regarding-dolomite-in-manila-bay/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">statement by the Institute of Biology</a> said that using crushed dolomite did not address any of the rehabilitation phases and instead was "even more detrimental to the existing biodiversity as well as the communities in the area," pointing to the case of water birds. "The dumping of dolomite in Manila Bay has effectively covered part of the intertidal area used by the birds thereby reducing their habitat."</p><p>At peak migration season, Manila Bay is home to 90 aquatic bird species, including species of international conservation concern that are facing a very high extinction risk in the wild. </p><p>Authorities should focus on protecting and conserving biodiversity, the Institute of Biology added. "Rehabilitating mangroves is an example of a nature-based solution that is cheaper and more cost-effective than the dolomite dumping project," the scientists said.</p><p>Moreover, <a href="http://www.msi.upd.edu.ph/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">the Marine Science Institute</a> has warned that prolonged inhalation of finer dust particles of dolomite could "cause chronic health effects," leading to discomfort in the chest, shortness of breath and coughing.</p><p>They also warned dolomite sand grains would erode during storms and be carried out to sea, essentially being washed away.</p>
Rehabilitation vs. Reclamation<p>Environmentalists say covering up the beach doesn't address the real issues of the bay. Torres and others believe the best way to clean up Manila Bay is not to add anything, but rather remove trash and pollution.</p><p>"There have been studies saying much of the waste comes from already collected waste — so these are open dump sites along the coast that get washed up because of the rain," Torres said.</p><p>She criticized the authorities for continuing to push reclamation projects she says are at odds with each other. These projects will affect large areas of mangrove forests, she said, and experts warn that this, in turn, exacerbates coastal erosion.</p><p>"If you've removed the areas that helped trap the sand, like mangrove forests, then the likelihood increases that you will have to nourish a beach. Same as building right up to the waterfront," said Vander Velpen of UNEP/GRID-Geneva.</p>
Plenty of Sand in the Sea?<p>The question of Manila's contentious white beach echoes larger questions about sand mining worldwide. <a href="https://unepgrid.ch/storage/app/media/documents/Sand_and_sustainability_UNEP_2019.pdf" target="_blank">Global sand consumption has tripled</a> over the past two decades, UNEP/GRID-Geneva has found. A huge chunk of it is now taken up by construction.</p><p>"Many operate on the assumption that natural sand is endless in its supply," said Vander Velpen.</p><p>Sand scarcity is a concern shared by Stefan Schimmels of <a href="https://www.fzk.uni-hannover.de/fzk_start.html?&L=1" target="_blank">Forschungszentrum Küste</a> who's done extensive research on shore nourishment to stop coastal erosion. And as climate change and rising sea levels are threatening coasts, demand for sand will grow even more.</p><p>A large study, the <a href="http://www.stencil-project.de/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/STENCIL_SWOT_Analyse_191026.pdf" target="_blank">Strategies and Tools for Environment-Friendly Shore Nourishments as Climate Change Impact Low-Regret Measures (STENCIL project)</a>, focused on the German island of Sylt, a popular vacation spot.</p><p>About 1 million cubic meter of sand per year is used to maintain the coastal area of Sylt, STENCIL project head Schimmels said. That's about 100 million 10-liter buckets of sand.</p><p>When sand was extracted off the coast of Sylt, underwater craters were formed. "You can still detect these craters even decades later," Schimmels told DW.</p><p>"Also when you add a couple of meters sand onto the beach — you essentially bury all things that do creep and fly," he said. "How quickly will they recover?" Schimmels said more research was needed as there was still too little known about long-term effects on the environment. </p>
Criticism Piling Up<p>As for Manila's artificial white sand, it looks like some might have already been blown away by a recent storm. DENR claims it wasn't washed away, but said that grayish sand, stones and other material had simply piled up over the dolomite sand. People in Manila have tweeted photos showing how the storm has ravaged the beach. </p>
<div id="adc0b" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="98f9390db6bb81cb421aaf0bb9d9a6fb"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1318816633280851969" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Exactly one month after giving excited netizen a glimpse of Manila Bay white sands, look what happened now after ju… https://t.co/X0Z9i0bPB0</div> — M*A*S*H (@M*A*S*H)<a href="https://twitter.com/Magtira_Matibay/statuses/1318816633280851969">1603265362.0</a></blockquote></div><p>Authorities have been called tone-deaf for spending around 389 million pesos ($8 million) on a beach nourishment project in the middle of a raging pandemic.</p><p>An image of cake iced with the words "It really hurts - that's [worth] 389 million pesos?" has since gone viral.</p>
<div class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="4387aad52ea316e4db7330052318ca2f"><div class="fb-post" data-href="https://www.facebook.com/theweekendpatisserie/posts/144564207350008"></div></div><p>"It's just a waste of precious resources," Torres said. </p><p>The environmental activist now also worries that she might be labeled a terrorist for speaking out under the <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/philippine-anti-terrorism-law-triggers-fear-of-massive-rights-abuses/a-53732140" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Philippines' controversial new anti-terrorism law</a>. She says she could be arrested for inciting fear when talking about environmental dangers.</p>
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