Gov. Terry McAuliffe and his administration are standing firm in their support of Dominion Virginia Power’s plan to dewater and close 11 coal ash ponds at four power stations, despite opposition to some of them by the state of Maryland and environmental groups.
McAuliffe’s response comes as several dozen college students occupied parts of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality on Monday, demanding that it rescind two permits the State Water Control Board approved in January. According to a Twitter message from the Virginia Student Environmental Coalition, 17 students were arrested.
The DEQ “is responding to Dominion’s application to close out coal ash ponds pursuant to EPA regulations,” the agency said in a statement from state Secretary of Natural Resources Molly Ward. “These regulations are aimed at minimizing dam failures that would run the risk of releasing actual coal ash into our state waters.”
Ward says the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency approved of state permits granted in January to allow Dominion to dump millions of gallons of treated coal ash wastewater into the James River at its Bremo Power Station and into Quantico Creek near the Potomac River at its Possum Point Power Station. Dominion says it intends to seek similar permits at its Chesterfield County and Chesapeake power stations.
The permits have sparked widespread opposition from green groups and politicians, in addition to drawing hundreds of protesters who rallied at the State Capitol last month — a demonstration that resulted in eight arrests.
The state of Maryland plans to appeal the Possum Point permit on the grounds that it would “authorize the release of potentially toxic pollutants into Quantico Creek and the Potomac River,” according to the Maryland Attorney General’s Office.
“We were surprised by Maryland’s actions,” Ward says in response, “because we notified them last fall and heard nothing from them until just two days before the State Water Control Board meeting on the permits. We used the same protocols for these permits that Maryland would employ.”
From a political perspective, the conflict is peculiar because Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan is a Republican and McAuliffe is a Democrat.
Virginia and Dominion officials have seemed surprised about the extent of anger over the plans to permanently close and seal the coal ash pits.
“I think that some politicians are underestimating the level of outcry over environmental issues in the wake of the Flint situation,” says Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington, referring to drinking-water contamination in Michigan.
Democratic politics are being churned around because of coal ash and other ecological issues.
Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat running for governor, split with fellow party members McAuliffe and U.S. Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine by opposing drilling for oil and natural gas off of the Virginia coast.
Hillary Clinton, the leading Democratic presidential candidate, also is sounding off against offshore drilling, Farnsworth says, because she’s tacking to the political left to confront Bernie Sanders, her socialist competition.
Dominion generally controls the political maneuvering in Virginia, Farnsworth says. But this time, the utility apparently didn’t count on strong opposition from environmental groups and Maryland.
Students protesting at DEQ this week came from Virginia Commonwealth University, the University of Mary Washington, the University of Virginia, Virginia Tech and the College of William and Mary. They demanded a meeting with DEQ chief David Paylor and said that unless he meets with them to explain why the permits were granted, he should resign.