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Little Blue Run

It is a lake filled
with waste from FirstEnergy's Bruce Mansfield plant.
The lake is the largest coal ash dump in the nation.



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(Video by Andrew Rush/Post-Gazette)
  Little Blue Run
Most of Little Blue Run has dried up, as seen in this image taken from a plane. At back left is FirstEnergy's Bruce Mansfield power plant and at back center is FirstEnergy's Beaver Valley nuclear power plant. (Andrew Rush/Post-Gazette)

A lake born of waste

Standing on the quiet lake shore one afternoon, James Fitzgerald talked of a return to nature: Hawks and eagles tango in the sky, coyotes and turkeys roam the grounds, butterflies swarm in the tall grasses springing up at such a rate that mowing is a significant chunk of the tasks here.

Then Mr. Fitzgerald, manager of major projects for FirstEnergy Corp., pivoted to look behind him. “You know what the other side of this looked like?”

The dizzying view from the top of a 420-foot earthen dam offers perhaps the best perspective on the immensity of Little Blue Run, a site that has been used to dump coal ash for the past four decades.

Far below, a stream emptied into the Ohio River. The town of East Liverpool, Ohio, hugged the opposite bank, its residents going about their business.

“To give you some magnitude or scale — reluctantly,” Mr. Fitzgerald explained. “That’s how deep the valley was. … It’s impressive.”

The coal ash site — which consumes nearly 1,000 acres in Beaver County and the northern panhandle of West Virginia — is the result of waste produced at nearby Bruce Mansfield, the state’s biggest coal-fired power plant. That process forever transformed a network of quiet valleys into the largest coal ash slurry impoundment in the country.

A lake born of waste

Standing on the quiet lake shore one afternoon, James Fitzgerald talked of a return to nature: Hawks and eagles tango in the sky, coyotes and turkeys roam the grounds, butterflies swarm in the tall grasses springing up at such a rate that mowing is a significant chunk of the tasks here.

Then Mr. Fitzgerald, manager of major projects for FirstEnergy Corp., pivoted to look behind him. “You know what the other side of this looked like?”

The dizzying view from the top of a 420-foot earthen dam offers perhaps the best perspective on the immensity of Little Blue Run, a site that has been used to dump coal ash for the past four decades.

Far below, a stream emptied into the Ohio River. The town of East Liverpool, Ohio, hugged the opposite bank, its residents going about their business.

“To give you some magnitude or scale — reluctantly,” Mr. Fitzgerald explained. “That’s how deep the valley was. … It’s impressive.”

The coal ash site — which consumes nearly 1,000 acres in Beaver County and the northern panhandle of West Virginia — is the result of waste produced at nearby Bruce Mansfield, the state’s biggest coal-fired power plant. That process forever transformed a network of quiet valleys into the largest coal ash slurry impoundment in the country.

Four decades of dumping

This 2010 Google Earth photo from 2010 shows Little Blue Run.

A deal to close the dump

A recent tour of the site — narrated by Mr. Fitzgerald — shows the Ohio-based energy company’s challenge in its plan to close, maintain and monitor Little Blue Run, arguably the largest engineering failure the Pittsburgh region has seen.

For years, Little Blue Run grabbed headlines for its shockingly Caribbean-turquoise water and its many coves that could be captured by cameras in space. Environmental groups held it up as a catastrophe: Constructed without a liner to protect groundwater — something that wasn’t a requirement in the 1970s — nearby residents reported seeps and contamination of their drinking water wells, backyards and basements.

Amid public pressure, Pennsylvania environmental officials reached an agreement with FirstEnergy to stop dumping at the site by the end of 2016. The company is deep into a 12-year plan to cover the site with a plastic liner to keep water from filtering through and to allow nature — if not humans — to move back in.

The state Department of Environmental Protection has required FirstEnergy to set aside $169 million to cover cleanup costs — the largest such bond ever issued by the state agency, and one that stands despite the trouble the energy company has faced in recent years.

FirstEnergy is pulling out of Beaver County, as its coal and nuclear power plants — which have lost billions in recent years competing with natural gas and renewables — are in bankruptcy. The company plans to close the Bruce Mansfield plant in June 2021 and to shutter its Beaver Valley nuclear power plant around the same time.

A deal to close the dump

A recent tour of the site — narrated by Mr. Fitzgerald — shows the Ohio-based energy company’s challenge in its plan to close, maintain and monitor Little Blue Run, arguably the largest engineering failure the Pittsburgh region has seen.

For years, Little Blue Run grabbed headlines for its shockingly Caribbean-turquoise water and its many coves that could be captured by cameras in space. Environmental groups held it up as a catastrophe: Constructed without a liner to protect groundwater — something that wasn’t a requirement in the 1970s — nearby residents reported seeps and contamination of their drinking water wells, backyards and basements.

Amid public pressure, Pennsylvania environmental officials reached an agreement with FirstEnergy to stop dumping at the site by the end of 2016. The company is deep into a 12-year plan to cover the site with a plastic liner to keep water from filtering through and to allow nature — if not humans — to move back in.

The state Department of Environmental Protection has required FirstEnergy to set aside $169 million to cover cleanup costs — the largest such bond ever issued by the state agency, and one that stands despite the trouble the energy company has faced in recent years.

FirstEnergy is pulling out of Beaver County, as its coal and nuclear power plants — which have lost billions in recent years competing with natural gas and renewables — are in bankruptcy. The company plans to close the Bruce Mansfield plant in June 2021 and to shutter its Beaver Valley nuclear power plant around the same time.

Tonya Wiseman stands on her front porch near Little Blue Run. Her steps are lopsided, and she suspects land movement caused by the lake is to blame. (Andrew Rush/Post-Gazette)

Fighting the urge to leave

Reclamation efforts at Little Blue Run may also inform other companies who own similar sites. More than 1,100 coal ash dumps are scattered in 47 states and Puerto Rico.

It’s a painstaking process. The 40-millimeter-thick layer of plastic liner is topped with a sheet of fabric, and, on top of that, a foot of soil will be seeded with plants to stabilize the ground.

Even while the company declares an end to Little Blue Run’s usefulness as a coal ash dump, its legacy will outlive the closure.

Neighborhoods bordering the site have been emptied of many residents who sold their homes to the company — either for the impoundment’s expansion or because they believed their property was contaminated.

As evidenced by vertical pipes that dot the landscape around Little Blue Run, the company monitors water quality at more than 400 locations. Roughly 2 in 5 of those monitoring points showed evidence of contamination as of the end of June, according to water quality data.

Through years of land acquisition, FirstEnergy now owns more than 3,000 acres of property in Beaver County and West Virginia.

There are residents who remain, fighting the urge to leave.

The company has demolished some houses but rented out others.

Fighting the urge to leave

Reclamation efforts at Little Blue Run may also inform other companies who own similar sites. More than 1,100 coal ash dumps are scattered in 47 states and Puerto Rico.

It’s a painstaking process. The 40-millimeter-thick layer of plastic liner is topped with a sheet of fabric, and, on top of that, a foot of soil will be seeded with plants to stabilize the ground.

Even while the company declares an end to Little Blue Run’s usefulness as a coal ash dump, its legacy will outlive the closure.

Neighborhoods bordering the site have been emptied of many residents who sold their homes to the company — either for the impoundment’s expansion or because they believed their property was contaminated.

As evidenced by vertical pipes that dot the landscape around Little Blue Run, the company monitors water quality at more than 400 locations. Roughly 2 in 5 of those monitoring points showed evidence of contamination as of the end of June, according to water quality data.

Through years of land acquisition, FirstEnergy now owns more than 3,000 acres of property in Beaver County and West Virginia.

There are residents who remain, fighting the urge to leave.

The company has demolished some houses but rented out others.

A drone captures a view of Little Blue Run from above. (Andrew Rush/Post-Gazette)

Ecologically pure expectations

“You figure this is going to be your home for life, but I don’t feel safe anymore,” said Tonya Wiseman, one of the last residents in Lawrenceville, near Chester, W.Va.

Across the street from her house, a pumping station hums loudly, sending water up the hill, back to the impoundment. Next to the pumping station, a series of four groundwater monitoring wells poke out of the ground. She is almost entirely surrounded by FirstEnergy-owned properties, some of them vacant lots and others with for-rent signs in the yard.

Though a long-time homeowner, she feels like an outsider.

“I feel like I’m renting in a place I don’t even know,” Ms. Wiseman said.

A few years after the Clean Air Act of 1970 was passed, crews began building the Bruce Mansfield plant along in Beaver County. Like other plant developers at that time, Pennsylvania Power Co. had to figure out what to do with the enormous piles of solid waste that would be produced as a result of the push for cleaner air.

All three units at Bruce Mansfield — today the largest coal plant in Pennsylvania with a capacity to produce 2,490 megawatts, enough to power roughly 2 million homes — featured systems that removed sulfur dioxide and particulate matter from air emissions. The units generated roughly 3 million cubic yards of waste each year — a mix of coal ash and a limestone-based scrubber slurry.

Ecologically pure expectations

“You figure this is going to be your home for life, but I don’t feel safe anymore,” said Tonya Wiseman, one of the last residents in Lawrenceville, near Chester, W.Va.

Across the street from her house, a pumping station hums loudly, sending water up the hill, back to the impoundment. Next to the pumping station, a series of four groundwater monitoring wells poke out of the ground. She is almost entirely surrounded by FirstEnergy-owned properties, some of them vacant lots and others with for-rent signs in the yard.

Though a long-time homeowner, she feels like an outsider.

“I feel like I’m renting in a place I don’t even know,” Ms. Wiseman said.

A few years after the Clean Air Act of 1970 was passed, crews began building the Bruce Mansfield plant along in Beaver County. Like other plant developers at that time, Pennsylvania Power Co. had to figure out what to do with the enormous piles of solid waste that would be produced as a result of the push for cleaner air.

All three units at Bruce Mansfield — today the largest coal plant in Pennsylvania with a capacity to produce 2,490 megawatts, enough to power roughly 2 million homes — featured systems that removed sulfur dioxide and particulate matter from air emissions. The units generated roughly 3 million cubic yards of waste each year — a mix of coal ash and a limestone-based scrubber slurry.

A barge passes Little Blue Run on the Ohio River. (Andrew Rush/Post-Gazette)

Flooding the hollow

Penn Power, a subsidiary of Ohio Edison that would become part of FirstEnergy in 1997, set out to build what was to be the largest waste disposal site ever developed for a power plant.

Dravo Corp., a Pittsburgh engineering firm, found a spot seven miles away — a wooded hollow where tributaries merged into a stream called Little Blue Run. The stream flowed into the Ohio River.

It was a bucolic place, nearby residents recalled, whose inhabitants included a cattle farmer, an apple grower and others who worked in the nearby steel mills or potteries and maybe owned an acre each.

Dravo negotiated to buy land from 35 property owners that included 13 miles of Ohio River shoreline, according to that company’s documents.

It built a dam, flooded the hollow and dug an underground pipeline, following the path of the abandoned Penn Central Railroad. By the time Bruce Mansfield operations came online in 1980, Penn Power began pumping coal ash material from the plant — mixed with river water to form a slurry — to be dumped in the slowly forming lake.

From the start, Penn Power sold nearby residents on visions that its waste impoundment would be a recreational lake.

A 1974 permit application Dravo submitted to state officials promised “every care is being taken to retain the natural state of the area,” which would allow it to “be available for wildlife habitat, as well as various recreational uses.”

Flooding the hollow

Penn Power, a subsidiary of Ohio Edison that would become part of FirstEnergy in 1997, set out to build what was to be the largest waste disposal site ever developed for a power plant.

Dravo Corp., a Pittsburgh engineering firm, found a spot seven miles away — a wooded hollow where tributaries merged into a stream called Little Blue Run. The stream flowed into the Ohio River.

It was a bucolic place, nearby residents recalled, whose inhabitants included a cattle farmer, an apple grower and others who worked in the nearby steel mills or potteries and maybe owned an acre each.

Dravo negotiated to buy land from 35 property owners that included 13 miles of Ohio River shoreline, according to that company’s documents.

It built a dam, flooded the hollow and dug an underground pipeline, following the path of the abandoned Penn Central Railroad. By the time Bruce Mansfield operations came online in 1980, Penn Power began pumping coal ash material from the plant — mixed with river water to form a slurry — to be dumped in the slowly forming lake.

From the start, Penn Power sold nearby residents on visions that its waste impoundment would be a recreational lake.

A 1974 permit application Dravo submitted to state officials promised “every care is being taken to retain the natural state of the area,” which would allow it to “be available for wildlife habitat, as well as various recreational uses.”

Several years ago, Ron Miller noticed foul-smelling water welling up from the ground behind his house. (Andrew Rush/Post-Gazette)

Coal ash comes under scrutiny

That changed after some disasters.

In 2008, a dam breach at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston plant spilled more than 1 billion gallons of slurry into two rivers and damaged 42 properties. Six years later, a spill at a Duke Energy pond in North Carolina sent 39,000 tons of coal ash and 27 million gallons of wastewater into the Dan River.

After years of hearings, EPA established basic construction and disposal standards on coal ash in 2015.

The true extent of leaking coal ash impoundments also became clearer.

In its findings, the EPA documented 40 confirmed and 113 potential “damage cases,” most exhibiting groundwater or surface water contamination due to the leaking of impoundments. Many showed concentrations of heavy metals, including arsenic, lead, selenium, boron, mercury and others — exceeding drinking water standards.

In 2016, a Duke University study of coal ash ponds near 21 power plants in five southeastern states found “strong evidence for the leaking of coal ash ponds to adjacent surface water and shallow groundwater.”

Electric utilities have pushed back on the notion that coal ash is dangerous. Though the EPA required changes in how utilities handle coal ash, the agency’s rule in 2015 deemed it a “non-hazardous” substance.

Coal ash comes under scrutiny

That changed after some disasters.

In 2008, a dam breach at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston plant spilled more than 1 billion gallons of slurry into two rivers and damaged 42 properties. Six years later, a spill at a Duke Energy pond in North Carolina sent 39,000 tons of coal ash and 27 million gallons of wastewater into the Dan River.

After years of hearings, EPA established basic construction and disposal standards on coal ash in 2015.

The true extent of leaking coal ash impoundments also became clearer.

In its findings, the EPA documented 40 confirmed and 113 potential “damage cases,” most exhibiting groundwater or surface water contamination due to the leaking of impoundments. Many showed concentrations of heavy metals, including arsenic, lead, selenium, boron, mercury and others — exceeding drinking water standards.

In 2016, a Duke University study of coal ash ponds near 21 power plants in five southeastern states found “strong evidence for the leaking of coal ash ponds to adjacent surface water and shallow groundwater.”

Electric utilities have pushed back on the notion that coal ash is dangerous. Though the EPA required changes in how utilities handle coal ash, the agency’s rule in 2015 deemed it a “non-hazardous” substance.

Aerial view of houses on Johnsonville Road near Little Blue Run. (Andrew Rush/Post-Gazette)

Fighting for closure

In the late 2000s, after FirstEnergy increased the capacity of the Little Blue Run dump with DEP approval, residents began to string together odd occurrences.

Foul-smelling water bubbled up in Mill Creek, along the eastern edge of the impoundment in Pennsylvania. “It almost looked like gray water from your washing machine,” said Kim Moore, secretary for Greene Township, Pennsylvania.

On Cullen Drive, near the impoundment’s southern cove, residents called the local township to complain of an odd smell. Residents’ lawn mowers got stuck in muck, odors disrupted family picnics, winds whipped up dust.

Near the dump site in West Virginia, Murrell Byard noticed salamanders had vanished around his cistern.

Ron Miller, who lived down the street from Mr. Byard, noticed dampness on a hill behind his house: “The water smelled like sewer water; I’d never had that before,” he recalled. “After I dug a hole and saw water filling it up, I knew where it was coming from.”

Fighting for closure

In the late 2000s, after FirstEnergy increased the capacity of the Little Blue Run dump with DEP approval, residents began to string together odd occurrences.

Foul-smelling water bubbled up in Mill Creek, along the eastern edge of the impoundment in Pennsylvania. “It almost looked like gray water from your washing machine,” said Kim Moore, secretary for Greene Township, Pennsylvania.

On Cullen Drive, near the impoundment’s southern cove, residents called the local township to complain of an odd smell. Residents’ lawn mowers got stuck in muck, odors disrupted family picnics, winds whipped up dust.

Near the dump site in West Virginia, Murrell Byard noticed salamanders had vanished around his cistern.

Ron Miller, who lived down the street from Mr. Byard, noticed dampness on a hill behind his house: “The water smelled like sewer water; I’d never had that before,” he recalled. “After I dug a hole and saw water filling it up, I knew where it was coming from.”

Workers from Mascaro Construction move dirt to cover Little Blue Run. (Andrew Rush/Post-Gazette)

The Ash Wednesday crowd

To them, all signs pointed to one thing: The lake next door was leaking.

After a supervisor grabbed a Mill Creek sample in a water bottle, the township contacted Lisa Graves-Marcucci, a community outreach coordinator with the Environmental Integrity Project — and one of the region’s earliest skeptics of coal ash.

“There was a fundamental misunderstanding of the potential risks that coal ash could and does pose,” Ms. Graves-Marcucci said. “People were operating under the assumption that it was benign, and it is not benign.”

Ms. Graves-Marcucci galvanized a band of about four dozen residents into the Little Blue Run Regional Action Group. They met on Wednesdays in the American Legion hall in Greene Township, where veterans called them the “Ash Wednesday” crowd.

Then she went to the DEP.

In 2010, the Environmental Integrity Project, along with Earthjustice and the Sierra Club, published a report that highlighted 69 “damage cases” it had discovered — using DEP’s data — connected to Little Blue Run, including unpermitted releases into Mill Run.

The Ash Wednesday crowd

To them, all signs pointed to one thing: The lake next door was leaking.

After a supervisor grabbed a Mill Creek sample in a water bottle, the township contacted Lisa Graves-Marcucci, a community outreach coordinator with the Environmental Integrity Project — and one of the region’s earliest skeptics of coal ash.

“There was a fundamental misunderstanding of the potential risks that coal ash could and does pose,” Ms. Graves-Marcucci said. “People were operating under the assumption that it was benign, and it is not benign.”

Ms. Graves-Marcucci galvanized a band of about four dozen residents into the Little Blue Run Regional Action Group. They met on Wednesdays in the American Legion hall in Greene Township, where veterans called them the “Ash Wednesday” crowd.

Then she went to the DEP.

In 2010, the Environmental Integrity Project, along with Earthjustice and the Sierra Club, published a report that highlighted 69 “damage cases” it had discovered — using DEP’s data — connected to Little Blue Run, including unpermitted releases into Mill Run.

Pipes and dead trees can be seen on the remaining exposed section of Little Blue Run Lake in Lawrenceville, W.Va. (Andrew Rush/Post-Gazette)

Finding red flags

The DEP, in a response the following year, dismissed the groups’ claims as inaccurate or misleading.

Asked about the DEP’s thinking at that time, an agency spokeswoman recently acknowledged “groundwater monitoring indicated the presence of contaminants possibly migrating from the impoundment” but said the agency had blamed “other causes, such as nearby coal seams and abandoned oil well brine.”

Eventually the DEP found enough evidence to justify taking action.

Citing seeps in Lawrenceville, W.Va., water quality issues on Cullen Drive in Pennsylvania and red flags in monitoring well data, the DEP reached an agreement with FirstEnergy in 2012 to close the site. The DEP issued a $800,000 civil penalty for violations of state waste disposal laws.

FirstEnergy agreed to supply drinking water to 21 dozen addresses.

State-mandated monitoring points have ballooned to more than 400 locations this year from 74 locations in 2014.

Finding red flags

The DEP, in a response the following year, dismissed the groups’ claims as inaccurate or misleading.

Asked about the DEP’s thinking at that time, an agency spokeswoman recently acknowledged “groundwater monitoring indicated the presence of contaminants possibly migrating from the impoundment” but said the agency had blamed “other causes, such as nearby coal seams and abandoned oil well brine.”

Eventually the DEP found enough evidence to justify taking action.

Citing seeps in Lawrenceville, W.Va., water quality issues on Cullen Drive in Pennsylvania and red flags in monitoring well data, the DEP reached an agreement with FirstEnergy in 2012 to close the site. The DEP issued a $800,000 civil penalty for violations of state waste disposal laws.

FirstEnergy agreed to supply drinking water to 21 dozen addresses.

State-mandated monitoring points have ballooned to more than 400 locations this year from 74 locations in 2014.

 

(Video by Andrew Rush/Post-Gazette)

Workers from FirstEnergy look at the remaining exposed section of Little Blue Lake. FirstEnergy is in the process of draining and covering Little Blue Run. (Andrew Rush/Post-Gazette)

‘A good story to tell’

From the windows of a trailer above a western cove of Little Blue, FirstEnergy’s crew can see the work ahead of them. The mood was optimistic on a July morning as the crew leaders huddled around a conference table.

“We think we have a good story to tell,” said Mr. Fitzgerald, the FirstEnergy project manager. “And when you get to look around, you get to see that we’re demonstrating that this can be done, and we’re demonstrating what we are doing is improving the overall quality of the water.”

Mr. Fitzgerald scrolled through a PowerPoint presentation and pointed to site maps wallpapering the room. In three years, the company has covered nearly 114 acres — three of the 15 coves that protrude from the lake bed.

By the end of this year, crews will have capped another two coves totaling about 80 acres. By then, they’ll be about a fifth of the way done with capping 955 total acres.

The final work will be done just behind the dam in 2028.

Once totally capped, rainwater will drain toward the dam without coming into contact with the coal waste.

The capping process, while not new technology, is a labor-intensive process.

‘A good story to tell’

From the windows of a trailer above a western cove of Little Blue, FirstEnergy’s crew can see the work ahead of them. The mood was optimistic on a July morning as the crew leaders huddled around a conference table.

“We think we have a good story to tell,” said Mr. Fitzgerald, the FirstEnergy project manager. “And when you get to look around, you get to see that we’re demonstrating that this can be done, and we’re demonstrating what we are doing is improving the overall quality of the water.”

Mr. Fitzgerald scrolled through a PowerPoint presentation and pointed to site maps wallpapering the room. In three years, the company has covered nearly 114 acres — three of the 15 coves that protrude from the lake bed.

By the end of this year, crews will have capped another two coves totaling about 80 acres. By then, they’ll be about a fifth of the way done with capping 955 total acres.

The final work will be done just behind the dam in 2028.

Once totally capped, rainwater will drain toward the dam without coming into contact with the coal waste.

The capping process, while not new technology, is a labor-intensive process.

Workers from Mascaro Construction move dirt to cover Little Blue Run in Lawrenceville, W.Va. (Andrew Rush/Post-Gazette)

Truckloads of soil

In July, workers hauled rolls of black plastic tarp that, once unfurled, measure 23 feet wide and 900 feet long each. Those pieces are welded together and tested in a laboratory for seam strength, explained Dan Tollmer, project manager for Civil and Environmental Consultants, a Robinson-based engineering firm tasked with monitoring the site and preparing reports for the DEP.

On a hillside nearby, machines scraped the ground and filled dump trucks with soil. The closure plans call for using 1.7 million cubic yards of soil, all of it drawn from company-owned land around the impoundment.

The electric-blue water is long gone. Most of the liquid has dried up and sediment has covered the lake bed beneath the relatively small pool of water behind the dam. (Little Blue Run’s once-shocking color, company officials explained, was created by an effect similar to white-beach Caribbean sands: The whitish coal byproducts on the lake bed reflected sunlight so the blue color is intensified.)

The site offers surreal details. A one-story house that used to be a nursing home was uprooted from Cullen Drive and dropped along a road near the top of the dam, now serving as a FirstEnergy office.

In one cove, a group of withered, leafless trees stands buried more than halfway deep in the ground.

The site is so big that land surveyors account for the curvature of the earth — the Coriolis effect — when getting accurate measurements, said Brad Vaughn, a FirstEnergy project manager.

“We do have a forever commitment,” Mr. Vaughn said.

Truckloads of soil

In July, workers hauled rolls of black plastic tarp that, once unfurled, measure 23 feet wide and 900 feet long each. Those pieces are welded together and tested in a laboratory for seam strength, explained Dan Tollmer, project manager for Civil and Environmental Consultants, a Robinson-based engineering firm tasked with monitoring the site and preparing reports for the DEP.

On a hillside nearby, machines scraped the ground and filled dump trucks with soil. The closure plans call for using 1.7 million cubic yards of soil, all of it drawn from company-owned land around the impoundment.

The electric-blue water is long gone. Most of the liquid has dried up and sediment has covered the lake bed beneath the relatively small pool of water behind the dam. (Little Blue Run’s once-shocking color, company officials explained, was created by an effect similar to white-beach Caribbean sands: The whitish coal byproducts on the lake bed reflected sunlight so the blue color is intensified.)

The site offers surreal details.

A one-story house that used to be a nursing home was uprooted from Cullen Drive and dropped along a road near the top of the dam, now serving as a FirstEnergy office.

In one cove, a group of withered, leafless trees stands buried more than halfway deep in the ground.

The site is so big that land surveyors account for the curvature of the earth — the Coriolis effect — when getting accurate measurements, said Brad Vaughn, a FirstEnergy project manager.

“We do have a forever commitment,” Mr. Vaughn said.

Both capped and uncapped sections of Little Blue Run are visible in this photo. (Andrew Rush/Post-Gazette)

An underground plume

The biggest questions that remain to be answered are less obvious: Where does the already-contaminated groundwater go? Will there be more seeps? Will more houses be bought and demolished?

FirstEnergy officials insist the worst is over. With the cap blocking rainwater from the waste, the groundwater will gradually flush out. The most recent dam inspection, conducted by GAI Consultants, showed no structural deficiencies.

The DEP agrees with that assessment.

The cap “is impermeable, so the water drains off, so that stops infiltration of water, which should greatly reduce and hopefully eliminate many of the seeps,” said Diane McDaniel, engineering manager for the DEP’s waste management program.

“(FirstEnergy) demonstrated to us through a groundwater model analysis that the groundwater impacts should go off pretty steeply once all the capping takes place,” she added.

The DEP still finds the breadth of contamination troubling, stating in the closure plan that more issues may be discovered in the future.

An underground plume

The biggest questions that remain to be answered are less obvious: Where does the already-contaminated groundwater go? Will there be more seeps? Will more houses be bought and demolished?

FirstEnergy officials insist the worst is over. With the cap blocking rainwater from the waste, the groundwater will gradually flush out. The most recent dam inspection, conducted by GAI Consultants, showed no structural deficiencies.

The DEP agrees with that assessment.

The cap “is impermeable, so the water drains off, so that stops infiltration of water, which should greatly reduce and hopefully eliminate many of the seeps,” said Diane McDaniel, engineering manager for the DEP’s waste management program.

“(FirstEnergy) demonstrated to us through a groundwater model analysis that the groundwater impacts should go off pretty steeply once all the capping takes place,” she added.

The DEP still finds the breadth of contamination troubling, stating in the closure plan that more issues may be discovered in the future.

One of Tonya Wiseman's houses is for sale on Johnsonville Road near Little Blue Run. (Andrew Rush/Post-Gazette)

A disappearing neighborhood

A map submitted quarterly by the company shows all the water monitoring points sampled each quarter. As of the second quarter, about 160 points were marked as red — about 41 percent of the locations surveyed, clustered mostly around the dam, Mill Creek, Cullen Drive and the Lawrenceville, W.Va., neighborhood. About 190 were marked as clean.

In an email, FirstEnergy provided different numbers, saying 129 points were contaminated, about 35 percent of the locations surveyed. The company pointed out that a location can be marked contaminated and still meet drinking water standards.

The mood among residents is resignation.

FirstEnergy reached agreements to offset the loss of local taxes. After removing about two dozen homes, the company agreed to annual payments of $23,110 each to Greene Township and the South Side School District to make up the loss in earned income tax for 10 years. Those payments ended by 2016.

The company has continued to pay property tax on those homes, assuming a property value of $772,200 in 2005.

Other things can’t be replaced.

This year, Ms. Wiseman decided to sell her home to the company. This summer she was packing up to move down the street to another house still in her family — the home she grew up in and where her parents spent their final years.

A disappearing neighborhood

A map submitted quarterly by the company shows all the water monitoring points sampled each quarter. As of the second quarter, about 160 points were marked as red — about 41 percent of the locations surveyed, clustered mostly around the dam, Mill Creek, Cullen Drive and the Lawrenceville, W.Va., neighborhood. About 190 were marked as clean.

In an email, FirstEnergy provided different numbers, saying 129 points were contaminated, about 35 percent of the locations surveyed. The company pointed out that a location can be marked contaminated and still meet drinking water standards.

The mood among residents is resignation.

FirstEnergy reached agreements to offset the loss of local taxes. After removing about two dozen homes, the company agreed to annual payments of $23,110 each to Greene Township and the South Side School District to make up the loss in earned income tax for 10 years. Those payments ended by 2016.

The company has continued to pay property tax on those homes, assuming a property value of $772,200 in 2005.

Other things can’t be replaced.

This year, Ms. Wiseman decided to sell her home to the company. This summer she was packing up to move down the street to another house still in her family — the home she grew up in and where her parents spent their final years.

This 400-foot-tall earthen dam on the edge of Little Blue Run is the only barrier keeping the nation's largest coal ash impoundment from spilling into the Ohio River. (Andrew Rush/Post-Gazette)

Where will all the water go?

“It’s like the house hugs you,” she said. “It’s not a big house, but it’s a good house.”

In August, she showed off the newly remodeled kitchen that she and her husband, Bill, have worked on. She worries about the shifting groundwater, she said, pointing to dips in her yard, cracks in her basement wall, her tilting deck stairs and leaning shed.

She turned toward FirstEnergy’s pump and the four monitoring wells across the street, around where Murrell Byard’s garage used to be. Every Tuesday, the pump’s generator switches on, shaking her house.

“If that thing stops, where is all that water going to go?” she wonders.

Daniel Moore: dmoore@post-gazette.com, 412-263-2743 and Twitter @PGdanielmoore

Where will all the water go?

“It’s like the house hugs you,” she said. “It’s not a big house, but it’s a good house.”

In August, she showed off the newly remodeled kitchen that she and her husband, Bill, have worked on. She worries about the shifting groundwater, she said, pointing to dips in her yard, cracks in her basement wall, her tilting deck stairs and leaning shed.

She turned toward FirstEnergy’s pump and the four monitoring wells across the street, around where Murrell Byard’s garage used to be. Every Tuesday, the pump’s generator switches on, shaking her house.

“If that thing stops, where is all that water going to go?” she wonders.

Daniel Moore: dmoore@post-gazette.com, 412-263-2743 and Twitter @PGdanielmoore

 

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Credits

Andrew Rush

Photographer/Videographer
arush@post-gazette.com
@andrewrush

Laura Malt Schneiderman

Design + Development
lschneiderman@post-gazette.com