Reading Time: 6 minutes

It was a windy Friday morning last December when Gary Kuklish stepped out of the post office in the tiny coal town of LaBelle, PA, looked down the valley to the Monongahela River, and was surprised to find his view obscured.

For the past 10 years, utility companies had been sending coal ash — the material that’s left over from the coal fires that fuel electric power plants — to a disposal area up the hill. But Kuklish, a retired coal miner, worried that now what he saw wafting into the valley was also coal ash.

He says that at first, the effects he observed were subtle. Game animals slowly disappeared from the valley. Then sicknesses among his neighbors spiked, he says. Among the 200 people living in and around LaBelle, Kuklish claims that several dozen have developed cancer in the past five years and several others have started having kidney problems. Kuklish’s claims could not be independently confirmed; state health officials said they were not aware of the situation.

For Kuklish, the sight of the clouds blowing off the hill was new. He went home and called the local office of Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection, but all the officers were in the field that day. “So I just hung up the phone,” he says, “and thought, what am I gonna do now?”

The ultimate answer may depend on what the federal Environmental Protection Agency decides over the next year. Presently, some ash gets safely recycled into products like concrete and wallboard for what’s called beneficial use. The EPA doesn’t regulate the ash that goes to those beneficial uses, but it may start controlling which kinds of beneficial uses are allowed. The EPA is also considering classifying coal ash that doesn’t get recycled as a hazardous material. Without proper covers and liners, heavy metals from untreated ash can leach into drinking water or escape into the air as “fugitive ash.” An open comment period on the proposed regulations closed on Nov. 19.

The ash up the hill in LaBelle is officially there for a beneficial use. The ash’s chemical composition helps neutralize the acidic mine waste it’s being dumped on and helps to stabilize the constructed fill, according to officials with the state environmental protection agency. While the ash may be legally benefiting the coal refuse site, Kuklish worries its effect on his neighbors is quite the opposite.

A 2006 report from the National Academy of Sciences found 24 potentially hazardous metals in coal ash — like arsenic and cadmium — that medical researchers have linked to a host of ailments. The non-profit health advocacy group Physicians for Social Responsibility say ash dumps pose “an acute risk of cancer and neurological effects as well as many other negative health impacts: heart damage, lung disease, kidney disease, reproductive problems, gastrointestinal illness, birth defects, and impaired bone growth in children.”

A view of the Matt Canestrale Contracting, Inc. coal refuse disposal site in LaBelle, PA, taken during an on-site tour on November 8, 2009. Credit: Yma SmithKuklish’s neighbors, George Markish and Yma Smith, both live within 500 yards of the coal refuse site and are worried their health may have been damaged by inhaling ash blowing off the site or drinking it in after it has seeped into the ground water. Markish had half of his colon removed and his wife is in remission from cancer. Smith is going in for a kidney biopsy this month and her husband is on dialysis. She worries their health problems come from the coal ash that covers her house. “It’s all over the gutters, all over the siding, it’s thick,” she says.

But William T. Gorton, III, an attorney for Matt Canestrale Construction, the site’s owner, says there is no evidence that the site has impacted the surface or ground water in the area. As for the dust Kuklish saw coming into the valley, Gorton says it may have been limestone blowing off the haul roads before a water truck had come by, “but as far as health implications from this particular activity,”he says, “that’s confounded.”

He says the project is extremely beneficial to the area. The coal dump site has been abandoned for years and the coal ash cover will help reclaim it. DEP confirms the site owner has begun covering the area with topsoil and planting over it with grass.

Kuklish says he and his neighbors have gotten limited response from the government. They have petitioned the federal Environmental Protection Agency to classify the ash as a hazardous waste. And their efforts have prompted letters of concern from their state representative, Bill DeWeese, and state senator, Richard Kasunic, to Pennsylvania’s environmental protection agency. “It is critical that this matter is thoroughly investigated and all residents of the LaBelle/Maxwell Area are assured of the healthy quality of their air and water,” DeWeese wrote in a Jan. 29, 2010 letter.

In its reply, the agency said it had inspected the facility twice and reminded the owners that no ash is allowed to drift off the permitted area. It also said they found no evidence of coal ash on the neighboring homes, but last month, it installed equipment to test the air on Smith and Markish’s property. Katy Gresh, a spokesperson for Pennsylvania’s DEP, says “the company is in compliance and we continue to investigate each complaint we receive.”

James Kotcon, associate professor in plant and soil sciences at West Virginia University, says coal ash is particularly hazardous because furnaces in utility plants burn hot enough to vaporize the heavy metals in the coal. When those vapors go up the smoke stack and out into the air, they cool down and condense around the ash particles, encrusting them. “So now all of the heavy metals are on the outside where they are more available to leach into water or lung tissue,” Kotcon says.

Coal ash isn’t just used to neutralize above-ground refuse areas, like in LaBelle. Some coal veins are particularly sulfurous. When that sulfur is exposed to air and water, it can form sulfur dioxide, a dangerous acid. To prevent the acidic drainage, mine shafts are refilled with coal ash.

The irony to Kotcon is that if utilities wanted to simply throw the coal ash away, it would be regulated as a solid waste and expensive to dispose of in a landfill — with a liner built to prevent the heavy metals in the coal ash from seeping into the ground water.

“It’s our concern that if they don’t close the loophole for beneficial uses then utilities rather than pay the expense will instead try and find more of these mine sites to dispose of the ash more cheaply,” Kotcon says.

There is an entire industry that uses the waste product as a material for other uses, says Tom Adams, executive director of the American Coal Ash Association. He says the material can be put to good use.

“We have, for example, a contractor in the Kansas and Missouri markets who backfills limestone mines to become industrial parks and condos” he says.

Referred to as coal combustion products, or CCPs, coal ash is an ingredient in wallboard, cement, shingles, carpet backing and about half of the ready-mix concrete on the market. “You can hardly go to any part of your home and not see a CCP that you can go out and touch,” Adams says. Adams worries that if the EPA chooses to label coal ash not used for a beneficial use “hazardous,” instead of merely solid waste, it will kill his industry.

“If you’re hauling this material out of a power plant and you haul it to a disposal site, you’re transporting a hazardous waste,” Adams says. “The same truck, if he goes to a concrete plant or some other location that’s going to use it for a beneficial use, all of a sudden, that’s no longer hazardous. How can it be hazardous in one place and not in another?”

As for Kuklish and his neighbors, they’re hoping the EPA will go the “hazardous” route. They’re meeting with private attorneys from Maryland in December to explore their legal options. In the meantime, they’re hoping the air quality monitors the state installed on Smith and Markish’s property will confirm that the dangerous dust has in fact made its way off the site, which could lead to further site inspections or a fine.

Either way, Smith says, “it’s really gotten out of hand.”

Deputy Web Editor Cole Goins contributed to this article.

Help support this work

Public Integrity doesn’t have paywalls and doesn’t accept advertising so that our investigative reporting can have the widest possible impact on addressing inequality in the U.S. Our work is possible thanks to support from people like you.