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Bruce Nilles

Bruce Nilles

Posted: September 30, 2010 12:53 PM

This post is the latest in our series of coal ash community profiles. Our work on coal ash unfortunately becomes timely yet again, as news came out this week of a breach at a coal ash impoundment in North Carolina. This week's profile was written by Sierra Club Apprentice Andrea Sanchez.

There is nothing little about Little Blue Run Dam, the coal fly ash impoundment that reaches into both Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Coal ash is the toxic by-product of burning coal for electricity - the Little Blue Run ash impoundment belongs to the Bruce Mansfield Plant. This plant is FirstEnergy's largest coal-fired power plant, burning around seven million tons of coal annually.

At full capacity, the three plants that make up Bruce Mansfield complex produce four million gallons of coal slurry daily. This is where Little Blue comes in.

Little blue
Seven miles of pipeline will bring you to a 1,694 acre disposal site known as Little Blue (see its eerie blue color in the above Google Maps satellite image). By the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) own admission, Little Blue is one of 49 sites around the country whose dam currently has a High Hazard Potential rating. This rating means that if the dam holding back Little Blue's toxic slurry - the largest earthen dam in the country - were to breach, it would result in probable loss of life, largely to communities across the river in Ohio.

In addition to the structural hazard, coal ash also contains toxic metals such as lead, mercury, arsenic, and selenium, to name a few, and so far EPA has not required special liners to ensure that coal ash does not contaminate nearby waterways.

Debbie Havens, of the West Virginia side of the impoundment, remembers the first time the energy company spoke to her about the expansion of the impoundment years ago. A man came to her home armed with a colorful brochure and said, "There will be swimming, boating, walking and bike trails, a place a family could spend time together."

She told him, "I'm sorry sir, but I have a hard time believing that."  That was the first and only time that anyone came to her door. Now large properties are being bought off left and right to make room for more coal ash waste at Little Blue.

For those living near unlined coal ash impoundments the risk of cancer can be as high as 1 in 50, which is 2,000 times higher than EPA's "acceptable cancer risk of 1 in 100,000." This statistic only takes into account the risk of cancer from arsenic exposure in drinking water.

When looking at the entire list of toxins contained in coal ash, the health risks are even worse. Havens' husband had his thyroid removed several years ago after being diagnosed with thyroid cancer and now Havens herself has a thyroid nodule which doctors are watching. Doctors also found three benign tumors doctors in her breast.

With no family history of thyroid problems, her endocrinologist has assessed that environmental exposure as the cause and told her, "You need to move or you will never survive this stuff."

In her community three men have already died from cancer this year. One thing is sure, she said, "Life is a lot different than that pretty brochure 36 years ago."

On the other side of the impoundment in Pennsylvania, Barb Reed and her son are living about a mile away from the site in Georgetown. Reed has lived in the area since 1978; her son is now living with her because he can no longer use his own water. His home is closer to the impoundment and after both FirstEnergy and the state Department of Environmental Protection found that the levels of arsenic in his water were exceeding the maximum EPA levels, he decided he had to leave his home.

"It's terribly upsetting because he can't even take showers or wash dishes, he's had to leave his home, and he's still paying a mortgage on it," said Reed. "They haven't even offered him a viable water supply because they claim it is not their fault."

If the risk of cancer, the potential for contaminated water, and the destroyed landscape isn't enough - there is also the smell of rotten eggs. "You can't breathe because of the smell. Your throat burns, your eyes burns, everyday we're surrounded by fly ash," said Havens.

Even from a mile away Reed is reluctant to use her water because of the smell of rotten eggs coming from the tap. While she used to garden in her own backyard, she now grows vegetables out of buckets with store-bought soil to avoid eating contaminated produce.

It is time for EPA and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to treat coal ash as the toxic waste that it is. Both of Reed and Havens have attended the EPA coal ash public hearings in their areas hoping to get the agency to enact federally enforceable standards that will treat coal not like household garbage - but as toxic waste.

"A banana peel is household waste, not fly ash," said Havens.