The Maryland Department of the Environment has cited the operators of the Morgantown Generating Station in Newburg with multiple violations of state code for storing ash in a way that could potentially contaminate a Potomac River tributary that runs through the plant property.
An inspection by MDE on Sept. 18 found that plant employees had stored approximately 2,000 tons of fly ash in an open pit called a “pirate landfill” without first notifying the environmental agency about the dumping or taking precautions to ensure ash would not contaminate surface water runoff into the unnamed tributary. Late last week the department of the environment cited GenOn Energy, the plant’s operator, with three violations of the state’s environmental code.
Fly ash is a dust-like material that results from the combustion of coal at a power plant. Prior to current environmental regulations, fly ash used to be released into the air, but now coal-burning plants are required to filter fly ash out of the exhaust plume and either recycle or store it.
The Potomac Riverkeeper Network tipped off MDE about the apparent violations on Sept. 16 after aerial photos of the plant showed the movement of ash from a storage silo to the open pit. Dean Naujocks, the Potomac Riverkeeper, told The Enterprise that the plant has been periodically surveyed from the air for the past two years by both drones and manned aircraft.
According to the department of the environment’s inspection report released last week, Debbie Knight, a senior environmental specialist at the Morgantown plant, told the inspector the ash was temporarily moved from a storage silo into the open pit in order to allow crews to remove a blockage in the silo.
A “pirate landfill” is a pit that is no longer designated for storing coal combustion byproducts like fly ash. The pit in question is lined, according to Knight, and any solids or liquids that leach out of it are diverted to a holding pond for treatment.
Knight also told the MDE inspector, Shailaja Polasi, that the fly ash will be hauled from the power plant to a landfill in Virginia that is specially designated for this type of waste.
According to the inspection report, Polasi also asked about two other areas of concern, a temporary storage area for material dredged from one of the power plant’s stormwater management ponds, and water issuing from the tributary that runs through the site that is red in color.
Knight assured Polasi that the storage area had been properly barricaded to ensure the solid material is contained and the contents will be hauled to the Virginia landfill. As to the red water in the stream, Knight told Polasi that “standing water in the creek always had red coloration.”
Naujocks disputes that claim. “That is polluted, toxic water that is eventually draining right into the Potomac River,” he said.
The Morgantown Generating Station is one of only seven coal-fired power plants still operating in Maryland. According to a 2013 study by the Environment America Research and Policy Center, it was at the time the second-largest producer of carbon dioxide emissions among the state’s power stations.
The MDE inspection report requires GenOn to submit a letter to the state within 15 days clarifying when the fly ash in the pirate landfill and the material dredged from the stormwater management pond will be hauled away. Within a month, GenOn must also provide the state with results of water quality tests, confirm the disposal of the waste material and identify steps that will be taken to ensure the fly ash silo will not clog in the future.
The Maryland Department of the Environment “will conduct additional inspections and will communicate with the appropriate parties as part of its ongoing investigation and to determine any future actions,” MDE spokesperson Jay Apperson told The Enterprise.
Naujocks said the Potomac Riverkeeper Network will also be conducting its own water quality tests in the Potomac River and its downstream tributaries to ensure compliance with the state’s environmental code, as well as continue its aerial surveys of the power station and the surrounding area.
“There’s watermen that are making a living from harvesting oysters right there at Pasquahnza” Creek, Naujocks said. “There are anglers who are fishing at that discharge on a weekly basis. There is a direct public health concern ... that I think needs to be addressed.”
Rosa Hance, chair of the Southern Maryland Sierra Club, urged the Maryland Department of the Environment to hold GenOn accountable for its violations to the full extent of the law, and encouraged elected officials to “enact a plan for a just and equitable transition off of coal with support to the impacted communities such as ours.”
“Southern Maryland can no longer bear the burden that coal power places on the health of our citizens and our environment,” Hance said in an emailed statement.
GenOn Energy did not respond to a request for comment by press time.