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State settlement boosts monitoring at massive coal ash dump bordering two states

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A view of the Little Blue Run pond in Pennsylvania, where millions of tons of coal ash waste has been dumped over its 35-year existence.

Sierra Club

Owners of one of the nation’s largest impoundments of the often-toxic byproducts of burning coal must do more to protect residents from groundwater contamination and stop accepting waste by 2016, under an agreement with Pennsylvania regulators.

The pact focuses on FirstEnergy Corp.’s impoundment, known as Little Blue Run, in southwestern Pennsylvania on the West Virginia border.

Pennsylvania’s complaint and settlement, finalized Friday, came 59 days after environmental groups filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue, alleging that dangerous substances were seeping from the impoundment into the water supply.

The groups filing the notice — the Environmental Integrity Project and Public Justice — praised the state Department of Environmental Protection’s action. But they say the settlement came after the agency for years denied the existence of contamination. Indeed, state officials made such claims when the Center for Public Integrity highlighted problems at the site in 2010.

The agency declined an interview request, but said in a written statement, “We believe this will not only make major strides in environmental projects for that area, but also bring peace of mind to many residents who have expressed concerns about the Little Blue Run impoundment.”

The agency’s action appears to be the first time state regulators have determined that an impoundment of the material known as coal ash could pose an “imminent and substantial threat” to people and the environment, Public Justice lawyer Richard Webster said. The legal action comes as a national debate continues over regulation of the coal ash.

“There are hundreds of other sites all over the country, and we really need a way to tackle this in a comprehensive way and not on a piecemeal basis,” Environmental Integrity Project lawyer Lisa Widawsky-Hallowell said. “It calls attention to the need for federal coal ash regulation.”

The Environmental Protection Agency published a proposed rule to address the handling of coal ash in 2010, but it has yet to be finalized. Many environmentalists believe the rule won’t be released before the coming presidential election, Webster said.

Near Little Blue Run, a 1,700-acre dump that straddles Pennsylvania and West Virginia, residents have long complained of tainted water, dust clouds and foul odors. The area is the final stop for waste after a seven-mile trip by pipeline from the massive Bruce Mansfield power plant in Shippingport, Pa. When the impoundment received its permit in 1974, federal rules didn’t require the use of lining to prevent waste from escaping; current state regulations do.

The state’s complaint says testing near the impoundment revealed toxic substances, including arsenic, in groundwater that flows into nearby streams and is a source for wells.

As part of the agreement, FirstEnergy pledged to increase monitoring of groundwater and air surrounding the dump and to notify the state and take action if contamination was detected. The company also has to stop adding waste to the site by the end of 2016, and it agreed to pay an $800,000 penalty. The company did not respond to a request for comment.