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Tiny Town Fights 'Clean Coal' Ash Disposal Whack-a-Mole


A coal industry lobbying organization called the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity has been pushing back against President Barack Obama's Clean Power Plan by rebranding itself -- and its product -- as something called "America's Power." However, the public-relations push can't undo the impact of coal ash disposal on local communities.

The latest example comes to us from Fayette County in southwestern Pennsylvania, where a coal ash dump has been linked to serious health issues among inmates of the State Correctional Institute at Fayette and the nearby town of LaBelle.

Not so clean coal

The Fayette prison is a maximum security facility constructed in 2003. It was built on part of a former coal waste and ash dump, and the remaining portion of the dump is still active. Health issues at the new prison don't appear to have made an impression on the media at first, but LaBelle began to hit the radar in 2010, when reporters Don Hopey and David Templeton of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette listed LaBelle among a group of communities in the southwestern Pennsylvania area where residents were seeing "clusters of death and clusters of people sickened by cancer or heart and lung diseases."

In 2010 a human rights organization called The Marginalized provided more details about health issues in LaBelle along with this description of the community and the coal dump:

"Three coal plants in total send their coal ash on barges down the Monongahela River to LaBelle, where trucks then load the ash and drive it up to the disposal site.

"As a minefill site, the area does not have any regulations. Trucks take the ash off of barges on the river and drag it up to the dump at the top of the hill without covering the ash with tarps. Because they are uncovered, the dust blows everywhere. From the top of the hill, the dust can become airborne and fill the town."


"The ash coats any items left outside and, after a short time, pits them and destroys their exterior. Gutters, cars, doghouses, lawn furniture, and white picket fences all look dirty from the gray ash after only a few months or even weeks."

By 2013 health problems at LaBelle were on the map as an environmental justice issue, as reported by The Contra Costa Times:
"The LaBelle site has been an issue in the area for some time. In June, some local residents filed a federal complaint against Matt Canestrale Contracting, on claims of illegal disposal of coal ash and processing of coal mine waste over many years.

"The complaint said the 500-acre site contains an abandoned coal refuse pile made up of about 40 million tons of waste, with two coal slurry ponds and millions of cubic yards of coal combustion waste, also called coal ash, that's piled dozens of feet deep on top of the coal refuse."

In 2014 the Post-Gazette's Hopey zeroed-in on the possibility of coal ash impacts on the health of inmates at the Fayette prison, citing a report titled "No Escape: Exposure to Toxic Coal Waste at State Correctional Institution Fayette." The report was produced by two human rights groups, the Abolitionist Law Center and the Human Rights Coalition, which found that:
"... 11 prisoners died from cancer between January 2010 and December 2013, another six have been diagnosed with cancer and eight more have undiagnosed tumors or lumps.

"Also, more than 80 percent of 75 prisoners responding to the investigators experienced respiratory problems, 68 percent said they experienced gastrointestinal problems and half have skin rashes, cysts and abscesses. Twelve percent, nine of the 75, reported being diagnosed with a thyroid disorder at the prison or having their existing thyroid problems get worse. Many of the prisoners have multiple, overlapping symptoms ... "

The Pennsylvania corrections department issued a study that refuted the findings, at least in terms of the incidence of cancer, and in February 2015 the Abolitionist Law Center announced the launch of another survey of health issues at the Fayette prison, noting that a group called the Center for Coalfield Justice would conduct a similar survey for LaBelle. In May 2015, Vice joined in the reporting on LaBelle with more details, including this:
"Residents had been developing cancer, kidney disease, and bizarre skin issues at an alarming rate. On one street with only 18 houses, there were nine documented cases of cancer. In Luzerne Township, where LaBelle is located, the death rate from heart disease was 26 percent higher than the national average and mortality levels from diseases linked to air pollution were 'elevated.'"

Coal ash whack-a-mole

Hopey picked up the thread again earlier this year, with a January 2016 article detailing LaBelle's fight against a renewal of a wastewater discharge permit for Matt Canestrale Contracting, related to an expansion of operations at the coal dump.

That's where the whack-a-mole comes in.

As described by Hopey, renewal of the discharge permit is part of a process that would enable Canestrale to ship 2.5 million more -- yes, more -- tons of ash annually to LaBelle and to another ash dump located in Beaver County, Pennsylvania.

The additional ash needs a place to go because its current destination, a 1,700-acre coal ash impoundment lake in Beaver County called Little Blue Run, is being shut down in accordance with a consent decree with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. National Geographic rendered this description of Little Blue Run in 2012:

"When the Little Blue Run impoundment opened in 1974, it had no liner to contain the coal ash. The Pennsylvania DEP noted in its court filing that monitoring at the site indicated that groundwater degradation "is or may be occurring" due to leaching from the pond. The toxin arsenic and contaminants such as sulfates and chlorides were found in groundwater near the impoundment — a serious concern, because nearby households rely on private wells for drinking water."

As for the source of the coal ash at Little Blue Run, that would be the largest coal power plant in Pennsylvania, the Bruce Mansfield Plant in Shippingport. As described by its owner, First Energy, the facility generates enough electricity to power more than 1.5 million homes.

Replacing all that "clean coal" power with actual clean power won't be cheap, but if you measure the falling cost of solar and wind against the true cost of coal-generated electricity (including ash spills and other public health impacts as well as economic pressures on coal mining), and factor out all the coal subsidies, it looks like the math is on the side of clean power.

Image (screenshot): Coal waste facility (center) with prison (left) and nearby homes via Abolitionist Law Center.

Tina Casey headshotTina Casey

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

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