Wednesday, November 11, 2015


By Savanna Lenker, Sierra Club PA Chapter intern

At the Clean Power Listening Session, an idea was brought to the table. Someone offered that Pennsylvania makes up its aforementioned 4% “other” deficit (outlined in the Clean Power Plan article) by means of nuclear energy.

The Sierra Club opposes nuclear. Tragic events at Three Mile Island, just down the Susquehanna from where I sit, and in Fukushima, Japan have proved our fears have merit. The primary issues with this source remain uncorrected.

Three Mile Island. Photo courtesy of Savanna Lenker

The stance will remain the same unless sufficient federal and global policies are developed to restrain energy over-use and nonessential economic growth. Changes need to be made to solve the problems with reactor operation, disposal of spent fuels, and the diversion of nuclear materials that can be use in weapons manufacture. Also, there would need to be an establishment of regulatory machinery to make sure the above conditions will be upheld.
The Sierra Club also is advocating for these changes:

1. Federal legislation to require Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) licensing of both military and nonmilitary radioactive waste management facilities, including research and development facilities;

2. Federal legislation to require Nuclear Regulatory Commission regulation and control of all shipments of radioactive waste, whether of military or nonmilitary origin, and all commercial radioactive materials.

The Sierra Club also supports state and local efforts to provide greater protection in the transportation of radioactive waste and commercial radioactive materials.

3. Presidential appointment of a special citizens' advisory group to advise the president, Congress, and the NRC on the implementation of reforms recommended by the Kemeny Commission and such additional reforms as may be recommended by other studies now underway of the events leading to the Three Mile Island accident;

4. The making of appointments to this advisory group, to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and to staff positions in the NRC from a pool of individuals not committed by past experience to the nuclear industry. Such appointment should have a demonstrated commitment to public health and safety.

The Sierra Club is working toward a nuclear free future. 

“… nuclear proliferation and the long-term storage of nuclear waste (which remains lethal for more than 100,000 years) make nuclear power a uniquely dangerous energy technology for humanity.” 

Nuclear energy is not a probable solution to Climate Change (which the Clean Power Plan aims to combat) and every step closer to nuclear is one step farther from truly safe, inexpensive, and renewable energy sources.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Permit to Pollute?

FirstEnergy has a coal ash problem, and it wants us to deal with it.  Since 1975, the Beaver County power plant has pumped about 20 billion gallons of ash mixed with water to an impoundment called Little Blue Run on the border of Pennsylvania and West Virginia.  The problem is that the ash is toxic: it contains loads of heavy metals such as arsenic, lead, and cadmium, and other harmful pollutants like selenium and boron.  For years, this pollution has been finding its way into groundwater, wells, and streams, and even the air as the ash dries and blows around.

In 2012, FirstEnergy was ordered to close Little Blue Run because of the well-documented damage it was doing to the surrounding environment, nearby property, and neighbors’ health.  So FirstEnergy began to look for other places to dispose of this toxic waste.  It has now set its sights on the landfill at the Hatfield’s Ferry power station, a plant that FirstEnergy abruptly retired in 2013.  The ash would be dried out, loaded onto barges, hauled up the Ohio and Monongahela Rivers for 113 miles, then unloaded onto trucks and dumped at the landfill across the river from Masontown.

The proposed route between Little Blue Run (upper left) and Hatfield's Ferry (lower right) along the Ohio and Monongahela Rivers. 
But this landfill has its own set of problems.  The original landfill had no liner, and toxins from the ash disposed there have been contaminating the groundwater and surface water since at least 2001.  The most severe contamination is from arsenic, which has been found in concentrations up to 342 times the legal limit in monitoring wells around the site.  Exposure to arsenic can cause damage to the liver, kidneys, brain and nervous system, and can cause cancer.  Other contaminants that exceed federal standards are aluminum, boron, chromium, manganese, molybdenum, sulfate, and total dissolved solids (TDS).  There are at least seven private water wells within a two mile radius that are at risk of groundwater contamination, and one public water intake.

In 2006, the landfill was expanded and the new portion included a liner.  However, the original landfill remains unlined, and continues to leach pollutants.  The new lined portion partially overlaps the old portion, so it is difficult to know whether the liner is actually preventing additional toxins from contaminating groundwater.

In 2008, the landfill’s operator was fined for the contamination, and order to take corrective measures.  However, it is not clear that these corrective actions have been consistently followed, or whether new pollution continues to leach out from the site. 

A view of Little Blue Run courtesy of Click the image for Vice's coverage of this impoundment. 
FirstEnergy is desperately trying to avoid having to build a new coal ash landfill that meets current federal standards for disposal of this waste that has already proven to be dangerous.  So they are trying to find the cheapest way possible to get rid of it.  First it announced it would ship it to the unlined pit in Labelle, but ongoing pollution problems at that site have prevented it from being able to accept waste from new sources.  So now the company has turned its attention to the Hatfield’s Ferry dump, yet another site with unresolved problems.  FirstEnergy, three strikes and you’re out.

In addition to the risks posed at the sites themselves, the transportation of the ash on open barges risks contaminating the Monongahela.  The Mon has long suffered from industrial pollution and acid mine drainage, and was at one time mostly dead ecologically.  However, it has begun to recover, and was voted River of the Year in 2013.  Multiple efforts are underway to encourage river-centered tourism and recreation, and transportation of millions of tons of toxic waste on open barges seems incompatible with that vision.

The Sierra Club, represented by Earthjustice, appealed a decision by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) allowing FirstEnergy Generation, LLC to dispose of more than 17 million tons of toxic coal ash from the Bruce Mansfield Power Plant into a closed power plant landfill in Western Pennsylvania.

Bruce Mansfield power plant. 
In response to the DEP’s approval of the permit Charles McPhedran an attorney from Earthjustice and Tom Schuster, Pennsylvania Beyond Coal Campaign Representative for the Sierra Club released the following statements:

“This permit puts neighbors at risk” Charles McPhedran, an attorney with Earthjustice said.  “There are several private water wells and one public water intake that are at risk from contamination from this site, not to mention the risk up and down the rivers from transport of this ash. DEP needs to protect the families of Western Pennsylvania, not make them a dumping ground for FirstEnergy.”

“Toxins from the ash disposed at the Hatfield’s Ferry site have been contaminating nearby water since at least 2001. Arsenic has been found in concentrations up to 342 times the legal limit in monitoring wells around the site, and continues to violate health standards” Tom Schuster, Pennsylvania Beyond Coal Campaign Representative for the Sierra Club said. “Exposure to arsenic can cause damage to the liver, kidneys, brain and nervous system, and can cause cancer.  DEP needs to protect this community and require FirstEnergy to clean up this site before any more toxic ash is dumped.”

The Department of Environmental Protection should not issue a permit to all FirstEnergy to simply move its toxic liability from one community to another.  If it must dispose of its ash at Hatfield’s Ferry, it should be required to completely clean up the existing site, line the entire landfill, and monitor extensively to ensure new pollution does not occur.  Better yet, the company should avoid barging the ash up our rivers altogether, and build a state of the art landfill on site.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Sierra Club PA Chapter Testifies at EPA Methane Hearing in Pittsburgh

The following is testimony provided to the EPA by Sierra Club PA Chapter Director, Joanne Kilgour, on September 29, 2015 in Pittsburgh, PA: 

Good afternoon, and thank you for the opportunity to speak here to day on this important topic - controlling methane emissions from oil and gas sources. My name is Joanne Kilgour and I serve as the Director of the Sierra Club PA Chapter, representing 25,000 members and 80,000 supporters across the Commonwealth of PA. Our members have - for decades - been leading climate advocates and clean air champions in their communities, and I know that each of them would be here testifying today if they could. 

By holding this hearing in Pittsburgh, you are recognizing the significant impact air pollution from methane emissions has on this region - and regions across Pennsylvania - largely as a result of the dirty oil and gas industry. While we support and appreciate EPA taking this necessary first step to control methane emissions from oil and gas sources, we also recognize the need for action that will address pollution from existing sources.

I live in Lancaster, PA - one of the areas with the worst air quality in the nation. In fact, more than half of the counties in Pennsylvania are at risk because of air quality concerns, which are exacerbated by harmful methane emissions from the oil and gas sector. Just like me, more than four million residents of Pennsylvania live in areas that exceed national ozone standards, meaning that our health and our communities cannot afford to bear pollution from the thousands of existing sources in our state - let alone from new and modified sources. Our children, our elderly, and individuals as greater risk from respiratory complications cannot take another ozone action day.

Since this is the first-ever proposal to control methane pollution from the oil and gas industry we thank you, we support this initial step, and we call for these proposals to be adopted quickly so we can get to work on tackling the threat from methane emissions from oil and gas sources now in existence - sources that by 2018 are projected to account for nearly 90% of all methane emissions in this sector. 

In addition to threatening our climate, the public health threat posed by these emissions is staggering. For this reason, we call on EPA to revise its cost-benefit analysis and include in this revision metrics that monetize the public health benefit the methane standard will generate by reducing VOCs - and this smog and soot - as well as hazardous air pollutants. Without this adjustment, the benefits of implementing the rule will remain understated and the cost-benefit analysis will remain an inadequate assessment. Public health benefits are not simply qualitative or experiential, but have quantifiable financial benefits that must be documented.

I applaud the EPA and the Obama Administration for beginning to address this problem of new and modified sources of methane, and I now look to our state Department of Environmental Protection and the Wolf Administration to follow this lead and address fugitive emissions from existing sources, moving as fast and far as necessary to put the health and prosperity of Pennsylvania families first.