What is Coal Ash?
When coal is burned, toxic pollutants in the coal are released into the smokestack. With modern air pollution controls, airborne toxic pollutants are captured with filtration systems called “scrubbers” before they can become airborne, and are contained in the captured material, called “scrubber sludge.” Burning coal also results in a fine ash called coal ash, fly ash, or coal combustion waste which does not travel up the smokestack. Both coal ash and scrubber sludge contain large quantities of toxic metals, including 44 tons of mercury, 4601 tons of arsenic, 970 tons of beryllium, 496 tons of cadmium, 6275 tons of chromium, 6533 tons of nickel, and 1305 tons of selenium. In 2006, coal plants in the United States produced almost 72 million tons of fly ash, up 50 percent since 1993.
Currently, coal ash is regulated in Pennsylvania as a beneficial use waste, meaning that it is less regulated than other types of similarly dangerous industrial waste. As a “beneficial use waste”, coal ash may be used in reclaiming coal refuse disposal areas, topping landfills, coating roads, creating concretes, and as an ingredient in drywall boards.
The main components in coal ash are: arsenic, mercury, lead, cadmium, chromium, and selenium, among other heavy metals. These heavy metals are known carcinogens that cause cancer, respiratory illnesses, and other health issues. However, since it is regulated as a beneficial use waste, coal ash comes into contact with the air and water in close proximity to communities. People who live near coal ash have experienced severe illnesses.
How does Coal Ash Affect Pennsylvania, specifically Southwestern PA?
Pennsylvania generates more coal ash than any other state, producing more than 15.4 million tons per year. There are 103 coal ash storage and disposal sites across the state. This includes 75 (20 unlined) coal ash ponds,15 power plants, and 28 (13 unlined) landfills. In Southwestern, PA there are a number of coal ash disposal sites, including massive coal ash dumps in LaBelle, PA and in Georgetown, PA right next to communities where people have been fighting to shut them down for years.
LaBelle, PA: The Real Story Behind “Beneficial Reuse”
The LaBelle Site has long been a fixture of Luzerne Township, Fayette County with an extensive history preceding its current ownership by Matt Cannestrale Contracting. During the early 1950s, LaBelle was the largest coal preparation processing plant in the world. It was constructed to serve as the coal preparation plant for the Vesta #4 and #5 underground mining complex across the Monongahela River operated by Jones and Laughlin Steel Corporation (J&L Steel). Coal was transported across the Monongahela River by a bridge to the LaBelle Prep Plant to be processed for use in steel mills. The LaBelle Site was selected because of the open land available for the disposal of coal refuse. At the peak of its operations, the LaBelle Prep Plant processed enough coal to yield 19,000 tons per day for use, also leaving thousands of tons of coal refuse dumped behind the plant every day. It is estimated that 31.5 million tons of coal refuse were dumped at the LaBelle Site. The LaBelle Site was owned by J&L Steel until the 1960s when it was taken over by LTV Steel.
LTV Steel continued to operate the LaBelle plant even after the Vesta Mines were mined out in the late 1970s, processing coal from other local mines, until 1982 when LTV Steel sold the LaBelle site to A.T. Massey Coal Co. and finally closed the Vesta Mines. A.T. Massey leased the LaBelle Prep Plant to Interstate Energy Thermal Conversion Corporation (ITEC), which began operations in 1986 under CMAP # 26841601. The LaBelle Processing Company, an affiliate of ITEC, operated the coal refuse disposal area under CMAP #26733701. ITEC ceased operations at the Prep Plant in December 1994 and filed for bankruptcy. MCC entered into negotiations with the Department in October 1995 regarding the purchase of ITEC’s and LaBelle Processing Company’s assets. MCC and the Department then negotiated a Consent Order and Agreement (CO&A). The CO&A was entered into on April 14, 1997 and charges MCC with the reclamation of the LaBelle Site, outlining the duties and responsibilities of MCC in undertaking this reclamation and eventual abandonment and closing of the LaBelle Site.
However, the speed at which any alleged reclamation and abandonment has occurred has been torpid at best. For the last several decades, LaBelle has been in a perpetual state of “closing” without actually nearing any point of final close. Indeed, a July 1981 assessment by the Army Corps of Engineers of Slurry Pond #3 and the “significant” hazard dam maintaining the pond mentions plans to abandon and reclaim the site, recommending that the “owner should continue to implement the existing abandonment plan with all possible speed.” Yet more than 30 years after this recommendation, the LaBelle site has not been properly abandoned and reclaimed, not by MCC nor any other entity. Originally, the 1997 CO&A stipulated that MCC would close the LaBelle Site in ten to twelve years. However, 19 years later the LaBelle Site shows no signs of closing. To the contrary, every indication is that MCC is expanding operations and will continue to operate the LaBelle Site indefinitely instead of properly reclaiming it.
In January 2013, FirstEnergy Corp., an energy company operating in Maryland, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia, announced that it entered into an agreement with MCC that would transport three million tons of coal ash annually to LaBelle upon the closure of the Little Blue Run coal ash disposal site in Beaver County, Pennsylvania in 2016. (It is important to note that Little Blue Run is a coal ash disposal site subject to closure because of the massive destruction it exacted on the environment. Both CCJ and the citizens of Luzerne Township fear that the continued coal ash disposal at the LaBelle site will create a similar impact.) Although the exact terms of this agreement are unknown, FirstEnergy has stated that it is a “long-term agreement.” With new ash from the Bruce Mansfield Power Plant expected to be disposed at LaBelle beginning on January 1, 2017, MCC will have been operating the LaBelle Site under the CO&A for 20 years without any demonstrable signs of progress in reclaiming the site. Indeed, all appearances suggest that MCC is no longer operating LaBelle for the purpose of reclamation, but rather for the highly-profitable endeavor of running a waste disposal site.
Are you directly impacted by coal ash? Is there proposed coal ash infrastructure in your community? Contact us at 724-229-3550 or email us at info@coalfieldjustice to see how we can support you.
Earthjustice, an environmental law and advocacy organization, has produced multiple reports on the issue of coal ash. Find all publications here.
Infographic about coal ash waste
Coal Ash Chronicles: information around coal ash issues.
Southeast Coal Ash Waste, although a resource for the southeast United States of America this site has many great resources.
EarthJustice Video on Little Blue Run Disaster: https://youtu.be/4iwD5J7GX58
- The Dan River Spill: http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/21812-coal-ash-the-dan-river-spill-and-the-power-industrys-toxic-legacy#