Bob Downing

Akron’s FirstEnergy Corp. is closing its Little Blue Run coal ash impoundment.

The company’s announcement comes in the wake of a federal court filing on Friday by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection against the unlined 1,700-acre impoundment next to the Ohio River on the Pennsylvania-West Virginia border.

The state had filed the first-ever state lawsuit against a coal ash operator for causing what was called potential “imminent and substantial endangerment” to human health and the environment from the largest coal ash impoundment in the United States.

A FirstEnergy subsidiary, FirstEnergy Generation Corp., must finalize a closure plan for the impoundment by March 31 and the water-storage area must close by Dec. 31, 2016, said spokesman Mark Durbin.

The company will pay an $800,000 fine to the state under a proposed consent decree, he said.

The company will also be ordered to analyze and clean up contaminated water surrounding the impoundment.

The state action comes 59 days after the Environmental Integrity Project and Public Justice had filed their intent to sue FirstEnergy over the impoundment on behalf of the Little Blue Run Regional Action Group, a coalition of neighbors.

FirstEnergy has been planning to phase out the use of the impoundment where it stores coal ash and slurry sludge wastes from its coal-fired Bruce Mansfield Power Station in Shippingport, Pa. It is expected to be filled by 2016-2018.

The company intends to switch to a lined 260-acre landfill instead in Beaver County’s Green Township.

The impoundment now gets about 1,700 tons of ash-sludge per year.

The utility began dumping the ash and sludge into the reservoir in 1975. It is piped seven miles from the Mansfield plant, which annually burns in excess of 6 million tons of coal.

The lake has gotten an estimated 20 billion gallons of coal ash/sludge.

FirstEnergy relies on land storage at its other coal-fired plants.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency became involved in coal ash in the wake of a Tennessee Valley Authority dam at Harriman, Tenn., bursting in late 2008 with a cleanup cost exceeding $1.2 billion.

The fear is that toxic heavy metals in the ash could leach out of the unlined impoundments and contaminate surface and groundwater and that such impoundments can breach and cause floods, the EPA said.

Coal ash, a byproduct of burning coal, contains arsenic, mercury, cadmium, selenium, chromium, lead and nickel and other toxins filtered out by pollution-control equipment. The toxins in coal ash have been linked to cancer and other serious health problems.

In 2007, America’s electric utilities reported producing 131 million tons of coal ash — with 40 percent of that waste going into impoundments for storage. The EPA said there are 800 landfills and 100 impoundments to contain coal ash across the United States.

Bob Downing can be reached at 330-996-3745 or bdowning@thebeaconjournal.com.