A lawsuit filed in federal court on Friday by Pennsylvania’s Department of Environment Protection (PDEP) alleges that FirstEnergy’s Little Blue Run Dam coal ash impoundment pond in Beaver County, a facility that stores coal ash from the generator’s 2,470-MW Bruce Mansfield coal-fired power plant in Shippingport, Pa., has leached heavy metals in drinking water supplies and surface water. A proposed consent decree could force the generator to shut down the impoundment facility.

The 1975-completed coal ash dam is a 400-foot-tall engineered earth, rock, and clay core dam built into the mountainsides and designed to create a nearly 1,000-acre reservoir for the final disposal of a mixture of fly ash, bottom ash, boiler slag, flue gas emission control residuals, coal pile runoff, and boiler cleaning materials solely from the Bruce Mansfield plant. It is one of the largest of its kind in the U.S. FirstEnergy also has three other small lined ponds onsite at the Bruce Mansfield plant.

PDEP’s complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania alleges that no Pennsylvania or federal regulation existed requiring that a liner be installed on the floor of a residual waste disposal impoundment in 1974, when FirstEnergy’s impoundment was permitted.

The state agency said that analytical results of samples of groundwater taken during FirstEnergy’s monitoring (and those taken by PDEP itself) indicated that "groundwater degradation, that is a measurable increase in the concentration of one or more contaminants, is or may be occurring as a result of the solid waste disposed … within the Impoundment." PDEP said it found calcium, sulfates, chlorides, as well as arsenic in groundwater near the impoundment.

A 2006 consent decree executed by FirstEnergy and the PDEP had required the generator to conduct semi-annual site analysis to determine whether seeps had developed in the vicinity of the impoundment. PDEP’s complaint says FirstEnergy sampled at least five seeps but it "failed to conduct required groundwater assessment and abatement actions," violating the PDEP’s regulations, the 2006 Consent Order, and the permit.

In a 2009 letter to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency responding to a request for information under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, FirstEnergy conceded that there have been "several seeps" in the Little Blue Run Dam and in the surrounding hillsides over the past decade, but all were "well known to [PDEP]."

"Several of the seeps are permitted as [National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES)] outfalls, and FirstEnergy conducts a semi-annual seep survey and reports the results to [PDEP]," the letter says. Seeps are also reportedly assessed and monitored by FirstEnergy consultants.

According to DEP Secretary Mike Krancer, the PDEP’s lawsuit and consent decree is aimed at “addressing comprehensively for the future long-standing matters about the Little Blue Run impoundment. 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,” he said on Friday.

Key terms of PDEP’s consent decree could force FirstEnergy to submit a plan to shutter the Bruce Mansfield plant by December 2016 and pay a fine of $800,000. It would also force it to offer no-cost connections to a public water system within two years to 21 residences in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, as well as conduct an environmental impact study on the area.

FirstEnergy spokesperson Mark Durbin told POWERnews on Tuesday that the company would work with PDEP to fulfill the terms of the consent decree, noting that it had been in discussion with the agency regarding the facility for some time. The company expects to put make its last disposal to the Little Blue Run facility in December 2016, but it says closure of the impoundment dam will not affect generation at the Bruce Mansfield plant.

Plans are underway at the company to seek out a new site and build a new “state-of-the-art, double-lined” coal ash facility by January 2017, though no final decisions have yet been made, Durbin said.

Sources: POWERnews, PDEP, FirstEnergy, EPA

—Sonal Patel, Senior Writer (@POWERmagazine)