The operators of a coal-fired power plant in southern Charles County have agreed to remove piles of waste material being stored outdoors after a state inspection found multiple permit violations on the site, but denied that they had failed to notify the Maryland Department of the Environment about the waste in the first place.
GenOn Energy, the operator of the Morgantown Generating Station in Newburg, informed the Maryland Department of the Environment by letter earlier this month that it anticipated completing the removal of approximately 2,000 tons of fly ash, which is currently being stored in an open pit on the grounds of the plant, by January.
Fly ash is a dust-like material that is a byproduct of the combustion of coal at the power plant. According to GenOn staff, the ash had been temporarily moved from a storage silo to an open pit in order to allow crews to remove a blockage in the silo.
A state inspector cited GenOn for three violations of its operating permit last month following a tip from the Potomac Riverkeeper Network, which has been conducting periodic overflights of the power plant with drones and manned aircraft for the past two years.
The state’s report found that GenOn had failed to notify the department of the environment about the decision to store the fly ash within 30 days, did not take steps to minimize contamination of surface water runoff from areas around disposal ponds and landfills, and did not maintain the storage silo in “good working order.”
In responding to the environmental department’s list of violations, GenOn’s general manager, Greg Staggers, said he “respectfully disagrees with the Department’s interpretation” of a special condition of the plant’s permit that requires GenOn to notify MDE within 30 days about the disposal of waste byproducts.
“Morgantown does not admit that the actions described in the Report trigger [the special condition],” Staggers wrote. “[B]ut ... Morgantown is now complying with the Department’s notice to provide this information within 30 days.”
Staggers declined to comment for this story. “At this point we have nothing to add to our previous response to MDE,” Staggers said in a written reply.
In GenOn’s response to MDE, Staggers argued that the outdoor storage pit, which it refers to as a controlled storage area, is lined with a synthetic material to protect against contaminants leaching into the ground, and that drainage from the pit is collected and treated before being discharged.
GenOn has also agreed to clean up a temporary storage area for material dredged from one of the power plant’s stormwater management ponds. The material is currently being analyzed to determine whether it can be disposed of in a Virginia landfill.
GenOn said that it is not responsible for the “persistent red staining” in a stream that runs near the stormwater management pond, which the Potomac Riverkeeper Network had also observed. Staggers told MDE that the power station had reduced the amount of coal stored near the stream and removed two ponds along with their “associated soils or sludges.”
“At the time of the inspection, there was no evidence that the storage of pyrites or fly ash in the Controlled Storage Area or the storage of coal pile basin dredged material in the vicinity are causing impacts to the drainage feature to [the stream] or Pasquahanza Creek,” Staggers said in his letter to the department of the environment.
Dean Naujoks, the Potomac riverkeeper, told the Maryland Independent that his organization does not find GenOn’s explanation credible, citing a 1994 study that found low pH levels and high concentrations of iron and sulfate in groundwater and parts of the stream near the stormwater management ponds.
“The Potomac Riverkeeper Network believes that [GenOn’s] letter is an acknowledgment that they violated open dumping laws by spreading this dredged material from the ponds out into an unlined area that we know is heavily contaminated from their coal ash that’s leaching into streams that are flowing into the Potomac River,” Naujoks said.
On Sept. 30, a waste hauling company in Virginia began transporting the fly ash to a landfill in Jetersville, Va.
GenOn has also agreed to clean up a temporary storage area for material dredged from one of the power plant’s stormwater management ponds. The material is currently being analyzed to determine whether it can be disposed of in the Jetersville landfill.
“Based on the availability of trucks, drivers and the distance to haul the material from the plant to Jetersville, Virginia, we are optimistic that all the material will be removed from these areas by January 2020,” Staggers wrote in the letter to MDE.
Once everything has been removed, power plant staff will then ensure the storage area’s liner is in good shape and plant seed in the area where the stormwater dredged material had been stored.
By next Wednesday, Oct. 23, GenOn agreed to provide updates on the removal of the waste materials, submitting the results of surface water and groundwater tests, and identifying its plans for avoiding future silo blockages like the one that triggered last month’s inspection.
Naujoks said that the Potomac Riverkeepers Network is not satisfied with the remediation steps being taken by GenOn.
“None of this is going to fix the legacy of toxic contamination that has caused the impairment,” Naujoks said. “What they’re doing is a Band-Aid measure.”
The Morgantown Generating Station is one of only a handful of 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.