Little Blue Run Owner FirstEnergy Target of Planned Lawsuit Over Massive Coal Ash Dump

An environmentalist group announced Wednesday it will be filing a lawsuit against utility company FirstEnergy over alleged environmental violations at the 1,700-acre Little Blue Run coal ash impoundment, marking a major escalation in the group's attempts to close the site down.

Members of the Little Blue Run Regional Action Group, a coalition of residents living near the impoundment, are bringing the lawsuit. They charge in their notice of intent that FirstEnergy violated state laws by exceeding pollution limits, and federal laws by failing to disclose toxic releases.

The lawsuit comes as the Environmental Protection Agency enters its third year of struggling over whether to regulate coal ash, the heavy metal-laced product of coal burnt in coal power plants, as a hazardous waste. That step has been fiercely opposed by coal companies and utilities like FirstEnergy, who contend that it would drive up the cost of storing and recycling the ash. Currently, regulations are left up to the states.

Little Blue Run is a huge, unlined lake straddling the West Virginia and Pennsylvania border that received slurried coal ash from the nearby Bruce Mansfield power plant. In satellite photos, it sparkles an unusual Caribbean blue. It is one of 157 coal ash disposal sites across the country that environmentalists claim are spreading contamination into their communities. Little Blue Run is of particular concern, they argue, because it has no liner and discharges from the site are often routed into the nearby Ohio River.

Despite Pennsylvania state laws protecting clean streams and rivers, said Lisa Widawsky Hallowell, a staff attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project, "FirstEnergy has managed to evade most of them for years, placing human lives in harm's way."

For years, residents have contended that unauthorized discharges from the impoundment have contaminated their well water with manganese, boron, arsenic and other chemicals. A 2010 article by the Center for Public Integrity detailed the many health conditions -- including cancer -- residents believe Little Blue Run has caused.

"The problems plaguing our communities come from FirstEnergy's unsafe disposal practices," said Curt Havens, a retired postmaster who lives about 1,200 feet from the impoundment.

Although the company, which had $16.3 billion in revenues in 2011, has installed numerous pumps designed to catch seeping water and send it back into the impoundment, Havens contended that was far from enough.

"What we're looking for is a permanent fix that will cut off the source of the pollution instead of chasing it around the hillside," he said.

Such a solution, attorneys involved in the lawsuit acknowledged, would almost certainly mean shutting Little Blue Run down, which could force FirstEnergy to seek expensive alternative storage solutions. Currently, the site is expected to operate until as late as 2018.

"At FirstEnergy we are committed to operating the Bruce Mansfield Plant and the Little Blue Run disposal facility in an environmentally responsible manner," said Mark Durbin, a spokesman for the company, in an emailed statement.

"Based on the extensive testing we have done, Little Blue Run has not caused any residential drinking water wells to exceed government mandated levels for public drinking water supplies," he said. "We believe these allegations are baseless and are part of an ongoing campaign to discredit coal-fired power plants, which are some of the most highly controlled and regulated facilities in the country."

Although the site stretches into West Virginia, that state has ceded most of its regulatory powers to Pennsylvania.

John Poister, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection, said in an emailed statement that the state had "just received the letter of notice. We have not yet had a chance to evaluate its contents. We are not certain what allegations are contained in the notice but we will review it."