By Carol Costello and Ronni Berke, CNN
(CNN) – Marcy Hughes has lived in western Pennsylvania her whole life. Her home in Beaver County is like a picture postcard: Rolling hills. Lush farmland. Great schools. Back in the 1970s, Hughes says, she listened enthusiastically as representatives for Pennsylvania Power proposed building "Little Blue Run." Sure, its purpose was a place to dispose of coal ash - the waste left over from burning coal for electricity - but, that coal ash would serve as a foundation for a man-made lake.
"They said that they were going to have it where you could swim, you could picnic - they even showed a sailboat."
Today, Little Blue Run is a 1300-acre facility, with an impoundment measuring nearly 1000 acres, and 400 feet deep in some places. FirstEnergy Corporation, the utility company that now owns Little Blue, pumps tons of coal ash and other waste into it every year.
But, you won't find any sailboats. The EPA says that coal ash contains toxic agents like arsenic, cadmium and lead, some of which are known to cause cancer. And, Little Blue is about to get bigger. FirstEnergy produces so much waste to make electricity, it wants to build an adjacent facility to store it.
Little Blue Run is one of about 600 surface impoundments in the country that contain coal ash from coal-fired power plants like FirstEnergy's Bruce Mansfield Plant in Shippingport, Pennsylvania. In addition, there are about 300 landfills containing dry waste.
The Environmental Protection Agency is now holding hearings across the country on coal ash waste. After the disastrous coal ash spill in Tennessee two years ago, the agency is considering whether to toughen regulations and classify coal-ash as "hazardous" waste. Right now it's considered ordinary garbage. The proposed changes could have an enormous financial impact on the hundreds of coal-fired power plants that produce half the nation's electricity.
The EPA's proposals, if adopted, would require companies like FirstEnergy to close down or line coal ash impoundments, to prevent potential seepage of toxins into groundwater. Closing down "Little Blue" would cost millions, the EPA estimates.
"Without proper protection the contaminants in these residuals can leach into groundwater and migrate into drinking water sources posing public health concerns," said the EPA's Bob Dellinger at a recent hearing in Pittsburgh.
Residents lined up to tell of respiratory illnesses and cancer they suspect was linked to the coal ash in Little Blue.
"They are killing nature, trees, wildlife, and making human beings sick," West Virginia resident Curtis Havens said. His statement was read by a friend, he said, because his voice has been affected by his thyroid cancer.
For Hughes's daughter, Tracey Heinlein, coal ash is no ordinary waste. Tracey has suffered three types of cancer. The first at 18, the last seven years ago. She and her mother suspect Little Blue is to blame. When she thinks about the expansion, she considers selling her house and moving on. "Listening to my cardiologist who basically, the first time we visited him, looked at my mom and I in the exam room after the exam was over and asked, why do you still live there?"
The fear is that toxins from Little Blue are seeping into the ground water - and possibly into neighbors' well water. Barbara Reed's son's fixer-upper is less than a mile from Little Blue. FirstEnergy tested Reed's well in 2009, and the results showed Reed's well-water contained dangerous levels of arsenic. "We drank that water, we weren't told it was bad," Reed says. There is no proof the arsenic came from Little Blue. Subsequent tests showed no arsenic - but, once was enough for Reed's son. His house now sits - abandoned.
FirstEnergy vigorously disputes Reed's claims. And Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), which ran its own tests, also says the high levels were a one-time aberration caused by natural turbidity in the well water.
When asked about nearby residents concerns that toxins from Little Blue may be affecting their water, Charles Lasky, Vice President of Fossil Operations for FirstEnergy, says both the company and the state environmental agency regularly monitors the water around the facility. "We believe it is completely safe," Lasky says. "We have not identified any well, drinking water well, that we have contaminated or contributed to."
And, FirstEnergy is right - there is no scientific test that shows anyone is getting sick from Little Blue. As for the claims of cancer and other illnesses caused by Little Blue waste, Lasky says, "I am very sorry that these folks have these types of situations going on in their family. I'm sure it's tragic for them to deal with those types of things, but as far as I'm aware, there's no correlation between the operation of our facility and their medical conditions."
The Pennsylvania DEP says its own tests show nothing harmful is leaking from the retention pond. Sixty-nine monitoring wells are located around "Little Blue," and the DEP monitors those wells every three months to make sure high levels of arsenic and other toxins are not leaking. But, some neighbors, like Tracy Heinlein, are unconvinced.
"This is going to sound surreal and maybe too Hollywood-ish, but I'd like to invite them to dinner, turn on my tap and hand them a glass of water from my tap," she says. "And see if they would drink the water."