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Coal-ash pollution at three Maryland landfills to be cleaned up

The operator of three coal-fired power plants in Maryland has agreed to pay a total of $2.2 million in penalties and fix long-standing pollution problems at the landfills in Southern Maryland and Montgomery County where it disposes of the ash from those plants, according to court documents.

In a proposed consent decree filed recently in U.S. District Court, subsidiaries of GenOn Energy, a Houston power company, agreed to settle lawsuits by Maryland and environmental groups alleging that the company's Brandywine, Faulkner and Westland coal-ash landfills have been polluting groundwater and nearby streams. GenOn, which merged last month with NRG Energy, based in Princeton, N.J., pledged to pay $1.9 million and to investigate and clean up the contamination caused by its disposal facilities.

The company also agreed recently to settle another lawsuit brought by the Maryland Department of the Environment accusing it of allowing ash from its Brandywine landfill in Prince George's County to wash into a tributary of the Patuxent River. In that consent decree filed in Prince George's Circuit Court, GenOn agreed to pay $300,000 and to beef up runoff pollution controls at the site.

A spokesman for NRG acknowledged the latter deal Friday without commenting on it. He did not respond to messages left over the weekend about the federal court settlement. Jay Apperson, spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment, did not comment, other than to point out the agreement covering all three landfills has yet to be approved by the federal court.

Environmentalists who joined the state in the federal lawsuit hailed the settlement, though they said they wanted it to go further.

"It's one of the toughest remediation requirements we've seen a state impose for a coal ash site," said Jennifer Peterson, a staff attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project, one of several activist groups to intervene in the federal lawsuit. The University of Maryland environmental law clinic helped represent the groups.

The state has filed a series of lawsuits against GenOn over the past three years charging that contaminants in the coal ash, including toxic arsenic and selenium, have contaminated groundwater under all three landfills, which then seeped into nearby streams. Selenium in streams has been shown to accumulate in fish and other wildlife, Peterson noted.

In the state court settlement, the 140-acre Brandywine landfill, which takes ash from the company's Chalk Point power plant, was said to have polluted Mataponi Creek. Poor controls on sediment and storm-water pollution allowed millions of tons of ash to wash into the creek and downstream during Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee in 2011, the state alleged.

The federal court case addressed chronic leakage from the site, which the state and environmentalists alleged threatened people as well as wildlife. Records indicate there are 45 residential drinking-water wells within a half-mile of the landfill, Peterson said, which the company would be required to test under the settlement.

Fred Tutman, the Patuxent Riverkeeper, said the community around the landfill is rural and predominantly African-American. He noted that there are popular fishing and wildlife viewing areas in the vicinity, including the state's Merkle wildlife refuge.

"This is just one of many much-needed steps toward holding coal-burning interests accountable for the known risks and consequences to communities located near their waste disposal facilities," Tutman said in a statement prepared in response to the proposed settlement.

The 180-acre Faulkner landfill, which took ash from the Morgantown power plant in Charles County, was accused of contaminating streams feeding into Zekiah Swamp. The 83-acre Westland site, taking ash from the Dickerson plant in Montgomery County, was alleged to be fouling local streams there.

The company had said earlier it planned to close the Faulkner landfill, but Peterson said it's not clear whether the others will continue to accept ash from power plants. She said environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife and the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, plan to ask the court to make it clear that the company must meet toughened state pollution-control requirements if it plans to expand any of the landfills. She said the groups also want the company to agree to apply for a permit, giving members of the public notice of the expansion and a chance to have their concerns addressed.

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