2014-01-22 / Front Page

State greenlights giant fly ash wall

Shoosmith wins approval to build berm
By Jim McConnell

Chesterfield residents huffed and puffed, but they couldn’t topple a local landfill’s plan to build an enormous retaining wall.

Despite vehement opposition, the state’s environmental regulatory agency last week approved Shoosmith Bros.’ request for a permit modification that allows the company to use fly ash in the construction of a large berm at its Lewis Road facility.

The action by Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality came more than four months after about 150 county residents attended a mostly contentious public hearing on the technical merits of Shoosmith’s application.

DEQ also received 98 written comments – none of which supported construction of the berm – during a 15-day public comment period that concluded Sept. 25.

Bill Hayden, a spokesman for DEQ, said that agency staff “put significant effort into evaluating and responding to public comments on the proposed Shoosmith permit.

“We specifically addressed several concerns that were raised, and we put additional requirements in the permit to ensure that landfill operations protect people and the environment,” he added. “Because the permit now addresses these concerns, DEQ believes it meets the requirements of the landfill regulations.”

As a condition of the state’s approval, Shoosmith must take the following actions in addition to the legal requirements already listed in its permit:

• No later than Dec. 31, 2014, and in each subsequent year, the company must perform a topographic survey of the landfill to be certified by a professional engineer or landfill surveyor licensed in Virginia.

• Shoosmith is prohibited from placing waste in cells 19, 20 and 21 and must maintain a reduced volume in those three cells.

• The company must pay into an account established by DEQ to fund the salary of a compliance inspector dedicated to the Shoosmith landfill for one year.

• The current permit authorizes construction of only the first phase of the berm project. Construction of the next two phases cannot begin until site plans are approved by Chesterfield County.

“Our team worked closely with DEQ to ensure our permit and operations allow for maximum public safety and protection of the environment,” said J. Fletcher Kelly, Shoosmith’s vice president and chief operating officer. “Shoosmith Bros. takes seriously the considerable interest and comments from our community and we look forward to a collaborative and transparent partnership moving forward.”

Despite widespread public skepticism, DEQ staff agreed with Kelly’s contention that construction of the mechanically stabilized earthen berm wouldn’t increase the landfill’s total capacity.

Kelly has insisted on multiple occasions that Shoosmith intends to offset whatever capacity it gains from the berm by reducing capacity in cells that have yet to be opened.

He also has defended the plan to use fly ash in the construction of the berm, which would be 60 feet tall at its highest point, calling it an “environmentally conscious” way to reuse the material.

According to DEQ, Shoosmith plans to use 750,000 cubic tons of fly ash in the construction of the berm.

Shoosmith’s engineers have addressed concerns about fly ash by planning to encapsulate the controversial material in a high-density synthetic liner.

Fly ash, which results from burning coal to produce electricity, has been found to contain trace amounts heavy metals such as arsenic, chromium, selenium and mercury.

There is considerable disagreement about the level of threat fly ash poses to the environment, though.

During the 1990s, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency declared that fly ash doesn’t have the characteristics of hazardous waste and shouldn‘t be classified as such.

That view was challenged in 2008, when a containment dike owned by the Tennessee Valley Authority collapsed and allowed 1.1 billion gallons of coal ash slurry to damage more than 300 acres of surrounding land, homes and rivers near Kingston, Tenn.

In the aftermath of that disaster, the EPA began deliberations over whether coal ash should be classified as hazardous waste.

A judge in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia weighed in on the subject last October, ordering the EPA to move forward and establish regulations for the “safe and proper” disposal of coal ash.

The impact of the EPA’s determination could be far-reaching because hazardous waste must be treated differently than solid waste.

No landfills in Virginia are permitted to dispose of hazardous waste, so if the EPA classifies fly ash as hazardous it could impact Shoosmith’s future plans. As long as the landfill breaks ground on the berm prior to any ruling by the EPA, however, it’s expected that the project would be allowed to continue.

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