Q&A: The Latest Developments Surrounding Dominion’s Coal Ash Ponds 

click to enlarge Dominion has applied for a permit to discharge treated coal ash wastewaster at its Chesterfield Power Station, but a solid waste permit it needs may be more controversial.

Scott Elmquist

Dominion has applied for a permit to discharge treated coal ash wastewaster at its Chesterfield Power Station, but a solid waste permit it needs may be more controversial.

Dominion Virginia Power’s controversial attempts to close and seal 11 coal ash ponds at four power stations are moving into a new phase.

The state Department of Environmental Quality unveiled the first draft of a permit last week to release treated coal ash wastewater from the Chesterfield and Chesapeake power stations into the James and Elizabeth rivers.

If the State Water Control Board approves the discharge permits at a September meeting, Dominion next must apply to the DEQ for solid waste disposal permits at the four power stations.

The closure plans were brought on by a 2014 decision by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency after major coal ash spills that year by Duke Energy and in 2008 by the Tennessee Valley Authority. And the plans have been targets of vigorous protests by environmental and community activists.

They’ve decried putting small amounts of arsenic, hexavalent chromium and other toxic substances into the James River at Dominion’s Bremo Power Station, about 55 miles upstream from Richmond. Another permit approved by the water board in January allows Dominion to dump treated wastewater into a tributary of the Potomac River at its Possum Point Power Station near Dumfries.

Some solutions have been worked out regarding Bremo, but Possum Point remains a sticking point. An even bigger one could arise when Dominion applies for solid waste permits for its four power stations, because in most cases Dominion doesn’t intend to excavate dewatered coal ash and place it into fully lined landfills, raising the risk of groundwater contamination.

Here’s a primer on the latest in the evolving story:

What is happening at the Chesterfield Power Station?

The coal-fired plant dating back to the 1940s is Dominion’s largest fossil-fuel power station. It’s about 15 miles south of downtown Richmond, adjacent to Henricus Historical Park and a pleasure boat landing. The utility is applying to remove and treat wastewater from a lower coal ash pond — which holds what’s left over after coal is burned — that’s 98 acres and holds 2.35 million cubic yards of ash. Dominion also will dewater an upper pond that’s 112 acres and holds 11.15 million cubic yards of ash. Dominion spokesman Robert Richardson says the ponds were allowed in 1962 and 1984 before the current rules.

What are the chances that the discharge permit will be approved?

Good. In the draft permit for Chesterfield, the Department of Environmental Quality has included direct language from a separate agreement involving the Bremo plant.

In that case, the James River Association complained that the permit issued by the State Water Control Board allowed too much toxic material to be dumped into the James and threatened to sue. But Dominion and the river group negotiated a deal in which Dominion will set up extra treatment steps and add more monitoring of the effluent.

“It didn’t change the terms of the permit but Dominion did agree to provide extra steps if triggers go off,” says Gregory Buppert, a lawyer with the Southern Environmental Law Center, which represented the James River Association. The deal was legally binding as a contract and the river group could enforce it.

In the Chesterfield case, the same steps are written into the draft permit. The Lower James River Association, another river watcher, says it will continue to monitor the situation but is pleased with the wording of the permit.

What about other public input regarding the Chesterfield permit?

The environmental department will hold an informal meeting to discuss the permit June 22 at 7 p.m. at Thomas Dale High School, 3900 W. Hundred Road. Public comments will be accepted until July 21. The water board likely will make a ruling in September.

What’s going on with Possum Point?

Dominion has come to agreement with Prince William County officials after offering similar terms as at Bremo. But the state of Maryland and the Potomac River Keepers are suing, saying that water near the plant is too overloaded with chemicals to accept more. “We still have tremendous concerns about these ponds at Possum Point,” says Dean Naujoks, a Potomac River Keeper.

And the Chesapeake plant?

Dominion is in the middle of a court battle with the Sierra Club, which says that Dominion hasn’t done enough to stem groundwater contamination at the site. A trial is slated for June 21 in federal court in Richmond.

What are the issues regarding the next phase — solid waste permits?

Typically, the discharge permits allow treated wastewater to be dumped in waterways for a limited period of time — roughly one year. The solid waste permits will regulate how the remaining dried coal ash is stored permanently.

At Chesterfield, Dominion plans to leave the two older ponds intact and install covers over them. Because there’s so much coal ash in them, Dominion says, “it is more protective of the environment and the public to close these ponds in place.”

A new coal ash pond for future waste will be built just northwest of the power station and will be fully lined, bottom and top. It will be 66 acres and have a capacity of 9.36 million cubic yards. Trucks will haul the new ash over a new 1,400-foot-long bridge.

At most of the existing ponds, Dominion will use a cap and seal approach with no bottom liners. Dominion says groundwater will be monitored and the methods should be safe. Environmental lawyer Buppert says that “doesn’t solve the basic problem that they are still unlined and in contact with the groundwater.”

What do other states do?

Santee Cooper, South Carolina’s largest utility, has taken a more entrepreneurial approach toward disposing of coal ash. Spokeswoman Mollie Gore says the utility is working on closing seven coal ash ponds. Geologic conditions under some of the ponds have allowed the utility to excavate dried coal ash, and then recycle and sell it as a substitute for Portland cement used in concrete.

If any coal ash remains, it will be dug up and shipped to fully lined landfills. So far that hasn’t been necessary, Gore says: “We had been considering a cap and store [the Dominion approach] but recycling has been cost effective.” She notes that South Carolina’s construction industry is robust and needs concrete.

What about Duke Energy?

Another big coal burner, the North Carolina utility has about 33 coal ash ponds. The North Carolina legislature passed a law in 2014 that outlined the timetable and schedule for closing coal ash ponds in the state. Virginia has no such law.

Duke Energy spokewoman Dawn Santoianni says the utility has excavated millions of tons of ash from six of its 16 coal-fired plants and moved them to fully lined landfills.

Why doesn’t Dominion follow those examples?

Dominion says it’s studying the recycling of coal ash but that market conditions must be favorable. It says that its cap-and-store approach with no bottom liners is better because excavating the ash and shipping it by rail or truck elsewhere would expose the public to the ash, exacerbate global warming, tie up too many rail cars and take up landfill space. It would cost $3 billion. Dominion says that removing the coal ash from Chesterfield alone would require 235,000 truckloads and take years.

Meanwhile, are the coal ash ponds leaking?

A new report funded by the Southern Environmental Law Center has found evidence of pollution from coal ash pits near the Bremo and Chesterfield stations. The Duke University study, which did not examine groundwater, found high levels of arsenic near Bremo and high levels of boron and arsenic near Chesterfield.

Dominion spokesman Richardson says Dominion is reviewing the Duke study. He adds that Dominion has been monitoring groundwater at the plants. “We have identified localized impacts on station property, but no impacts have been identified offsite,” he says. As Dominion goes through the solid waste permit process, he notes, it plans to expand groundwater monitoring. S

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