What’s Poisoning Greene Township?
Barb Reed moved to Greene Township as a teenager in 1975. When she and her husband decided to settle there, they cut their own driveway and built the entire house together, starting with the basement. She was only seventeen years old.
“We love where we’re at. We’re in the middle of almost 8 acres. We have really good neighbors. If I call a neighbor and need something, they were here 5 minutes before I called.”
Greene Township in Beaver County, PA, is an energy-funded community, with a coal power plant run by FirstEnergy dominating the night sky, just across the street from a coal ash recycling company and down the road from a nuclear power plant. Coal employs many residents in the area, which is located northwest of Pittsburgh.
But those same residents are becoming fewer and fewer, due to a recent increase in buyouts by FirstEnergy of private homes and farms in the area.
“It’s sad. Our community’s disappearing.”
Moving Coal Ash In
When Reed was a teenager, Pennsylvania Power proposed a new coal ash disposal site in Greene Township. They would use some of the township’s land to deposit the waste from their power plant – now FirstEnergy’s Bruce Mansfield Plant.
In return, they told the county that the disposal site would be lovely – a place for swimming, sailboating and picnicking with friends. And although many residents did not believe them, the plan went through. They called it Little Blue Run.
Decades have passed, and now Little Blue Run takes up over 1600 acres across two states and goes 400 feet deep. Little Blue Run comprises 18% of Greene Township and is 30 times larger than the compound that broke in Kingston, TN, in 2008.
The coal ash travels from the power plant through 7 miles of underground tubing before it dumps into Little Blue.
But there are no sailboats out on the watery sludge, which is kept wet at all times to prevent the ash from becoming airborne. And no residents can get close enough to picnic. The pasty sludge contains dozens of pollutants, including known carcinogens and other toxic metals.
At full capacity, the Bruce Mansfield plant that feeds into Little Blue Run produces 4 million gallons of the sludge each day.
Hauling in Water
Every week, Reed does something Americans might assume no one in their country has to do: she hauls water.
Her well water tastes terrible, she says. Her neighbors horses refuse to drink it. “My water actually makes my skin itch.”
So Reed hauls in 20 gallons a week for her family to use in cooking and drinking. They continue to use their well water for bathing and washing their clothes.
Greene Township is 100% dependent on well water, including all homes, schools, and restaurants. Little Blue Run, being unlined, might be leaching pollutants into the groundwater and contaminating the wells.
According to Lisa Widawsky with the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP), required testing of the site has shown “hundreds and hundreds of exceedances of surface water quality standards near the site and many hundreds more exceedances of groundwater, or drinking water, standards.”
Many residents, fearful that their water has been contaminated by the site, have requested that their own private wells be tested. Twenty-two so far have been contaminated with pollutants that can all be found in coal ash.
“We feel like [Little Blue] is causing trouble to our water,” Reed explains. “FirstEnergy says it isn’t.”
Residents in the area suffer from raspy voices, sore throats, migraines, and increased rates of allergies and respiratory disorders. Animals and people commonly die of cancer – at rates 2000 times higher than residents living near lined sites or no coal ash facility.
In addition, when the sludge inside Little Blue Run dries out – something it is not supposed to do – it becomes airborne and covers the town in a coat of ash that pits the metal of their vehicles.
Since 2006, the residents’ itchy skin, raspy voices, and incidents of cancer have all been getting noticeably worse. They have seen higher contamination levels and have noticed water flowing suddenly onto their property where it never had been before.
Also in 2006, FirstEnergy expanded the site.
A Bigger Little Blue
Four years ago, FirstEnergy got permission from the Pennslyvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to expand Little Blue. Suddenly they could dump more ash into the site than ever before.
The company’s hydro-geologists proposed putting ash inside large pipes called geotubes and floating them on top of the site.
Other scientists, though, believe it is possible that the additional pressure resulting from the heavy tubes might be forcing out contaminated water from the site into places it’s never been before – like people’s backyards.
One resident in Lawrenceville, West Virginia, saw water presumably from the site’s dam behind his property leach through the hill in his backyard and flood the area. He has since been battling cancer, as have many people in Lawrenceville.
Residents fear any more ash will cause a disaster much like the infamous Kingston, TN, spill. They are afraid the compound might break open, covering their community, sending waste into the Ohio River and taking out the town of Lawrenceville.
The 2006 expansion was meant to last until 2040, but FirstEnergy is now proposing another expansion. While the new portion of the site would include a liner and other strong regulations, it would also require that an additional 4% of the community be taken over by more ash.
Moving Residents Out
That the expansion would require more property is clear. What is unclear to residents is why their properties are being bought so rapidly and in so many different locations around Little Blue Run.
According to EIP’s Lisa Marcucci, who is helping to organize the community to respond to the buyouts, “We’re not certain. Are they buying because they need it for the proposed expansion, or are they buying it for other reasons, perhaps because the wells have some problems?”
Widawsky says the company does have a history of buying out properties from people after their water goes bad. “They haven’t expressly stated that it’s due to groundwater contamination, but we do have records of showing high levels of pollutants in the water and then the company buying out the property.”
“This is a very scary prospect for the folks who are still around. Even those that have had low levels of pollutants in their water – they’re afraid to drink it. If a next door neighbor had arsenic in his well, why would they want to drink their water? Did the test just happen to not get a sample that was polluted? Maybe next time the sample would be polluted.”
Reed deals with this question daily. Her neighbors have been bought out, and she and her family remain in a house with water that tastes too spoiled to drink and has tested high for chloride.
An Abandoned House on the Border
Reed’s son John owns one of the 22 wells that have been contaminated – in his case, with arsenic. It also tested high for lead, iron, aluminum and manganese.
He bought the property soon after high school and planned to fix it up. It sits on the West Virginia border, nestled in a forest less than 1,000 yards from the compound.
Reed put in new windows and replaced the siding and gutters. As an electrician, he put in a new electric system and air conditioning.
When his well tested high for arsenic, he felt he had no choice but to abandon the project. He never lived in the house.
FirstEnergy has bought many of the properties around the house, including other wells that have tested poorly. But they have yet to approach Reed.
“He’d sell out in a heartbeat now,” his mother says. “But they won’t even talk to him.”
Many residents fear that they will inevitably have to leave. Without clean water, they will be unable to stay on their property – property mostly consisting of farmland and houses passed down for generations.
Reed continues to pay a mortgage on his property. He is hoping FirstEnergy will give him enough money to move somewhere else. “Otherwise,” his mother warns, “we’ll have a war on our hands.”
A War On Our Hands
The Coalition Against Coal Ash (CACA) meets every third Wednesday of the month in Greene Township. They discuss FirstEnergy’s plans for Little Blue Run and how they as a community should respond.
As part of those meetings, the community is teaming up with the University of Pittsburgh in a large-scale water sampling of the area for a full water study by the school. The study began the week of November 1st and will include control sites miles away from Little Blue Run.
In addition, CACA wants to arm residents with protection against buyouts.
“We’re trying to get people to start asking more questions,” says Marcucci. “Why do you want to buy this property? Before I sign on the dotted line, how about I get my water sampled and then you come back and I’ll talk to you, FirstEnergy.”
The group is also fighting for coal ash to be regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as hazardous waste under Subtitle C – a move the EPA is currently considering.
The new regulations would require that Little Blue Run have a cap, cover and liner. Eventually, it would permanently stop further ash from being dumped into the site.
Opponents of the new regulations argue that it would cost too much for the industry, as well as overstep states’ rights and cause job losses.
Reed believes the energy company and the state have been too unresponsive. She says that the FirstEnergy and DEP representatives who come to visit them know how dangerous the environment in Greene Township is. She and other members of CACA always ask them to drink the water while they’re in town.
“No one has even sipped it,” she says. “One man offered them coffee and they looked at him and asked if it was from his well. He said it was, even though it wasn’t, and they refused.”
Contrary to how their name “Citizens Against Coal Ash” might sound, CACA members claim that their group is not against the coal industry in general. “Coal employs many people in the community, and we need employment,” Reed says.
“You don’t have to take jobs away, you don’t have to take coal away. There is room for the industry to change. Do we still mine coal with a pick and ax? Things change, and they need to change for the better.”
“If someone doesn’t like that, I’ll trade you houses.”