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Making a difference one gob pile at a time

Making a difference one gob pile at a time

By Richard Webster, Power-Cotchett Attorney

When visiting the La Belle coal ash dump in Pennsylvania for the first time last fall, I thought I had misheard. Why were people talking about a “huge pile of gob”? In the British vernacular, “gob” is slang for spit or saliva. It turns out the community members, many of whom are veterans of the coal industry, were actually using the industry term for a pile of bituminous coal waste. Hearing of this “gob” conjured up entirely appropriate feelings in me: 1. Disgust, and 2. A desire to avoid all contact.

Coal ash site in LaBelle, PA

Gob piles (like the one above) have caused pollution problems all over Pennsylvania coal country. So the coal industry persuaded the state’s environmental regulators that they had a convenient and lucrative solution: simply add coal ash. The pollution, they said, would disappear. This “solution” doesn’t make a lot of sense: coal ash is well-known for causing pollution problems. Nevertheless, based on scant data it was added to many gob piles, including La Belle’s.

Soon after, residents complained of orange streams denuded of wildlife, contaminated seeps in their backyards, and clouds of toxic dust coming from the ash being dumped.

On that fall day, we were able to verify most of the residents’ claims. We took water samples that showed contamination from the gob pile had polluted the local groundwater and streams. After the site visit, we analyzed data taken by the dump’s operator and analyzed dust samples. All the evidence showed that the coal industry was wrong and the community was right; the industry’s “solution” was just an excuse to cause more pollution.

But that didn’t matter to FirstEnergy. The energy company recently announced it would start dumping three million additional tons of ash a year at La Belle.

It took a while for us to translate these facts into a lawsuit, but last week we filed a notice letter detailing our intent to sue the operator of this dump, Matt Canestrale Contracting, for violations of numerous environment laws. Buoyed by encouragement from our clients at the Little Blue Run dump, who closed that site with our help, the residents near La Belle united in their resolve to stop this dump from continuing to pollute their community. They agreed to work with us to ensure that the truth is finally told. It’s important news in the community: CBS in Pittsburgh covered it late Friday, and this story has also been written up in the Associated Press, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and the Beaver County Times.

To me, this case epitomizes what Public Justice is all about. We are empowering people to stand up to wealthy, entrenched interests that have persuaded states to look the other way. Let’s hope that Pennsylvania environmental protection officials finally realize that the data don’t lie and that they have been sold snake oil by the coal industry. If not, we could be in for an interesting court battle.

[Photo: La Belle coal ash site operated by Matt Canestrale Contracting/Robin Rombach – Pittsburgh Post-Gazette]