2016-05-25 / News

Meeting with Dominion ‘positive,’ citizens say

By Jim McConnell

A group of concerned citizens toured Dominion’s Dutch Gap power plant last week. 
James Haskins/Chesterfield Observer A group of concerned citizens toured Dominion’s Dutch Gap power plant last week. James Haskins/Chesterfield Observer As promised, Dominion Virginia Power officials conducted a tour of the Chesterfield power station last Thursday for a group of 12 citizens that included state Sen. Amanda Chase.

Despite their dissatisfaction with the company’s coal ash management practices, several of the people who participated in the tour agreed that the atmosphere was cordial and nonconfrontational.

“Almost too cordial,” said Midlothian resident Bob Olsen, one of Dominion’s most vocal critics, with a chuckle.

(Dominion denied the Observer’s request to cover last week’s event. The company offered to let a reporter tour the plant, but not at the same time as the citizen group.)

“They missed a golden opportunity to have a good story,” Olsen added. “All in all, the meeting was very positive. It’s not like they were trying to hide anything. I’m not sure why they kept [the Observer] out.”

According to those who attended, Dominion officials spent about two hours detailing the procedures for closing two coal ash storage ponds at the Dutch Gap facility and answering citizens’ questions.

Creating “an ongoing dialogue” was one of Chase’s goals when she arranged the tour on behalf of her constituents in Virginia’s 11th Senate district.

“My goal is to facilitate a positive working relationship and figure out what’s going on,” Chase said during a recent interview.

Dominion came under fire last year when citizens across the state learned of its plan to dump millions of gallons of coal ash wastewater into the Potomac and James rivers.

Coal ash, a byproduct created by burning coal to generate electricity, has been found to contain a number of heavy metals, including arsenic, mercury, lead, chromium and selenium.

In response to massive coal ash spills in Tennessee and North Carolina, the federal Environmental Protection Agency has ruled that Dominion must close all of its coal ash storage ponds by 2023.

The state Department of Environmental Quality granted the utility a permit to drain water from the coal ash ponds – the first step in the closure process – and dump it into the rivers adjacent to its Possum Point, Bremo and Chesterfield power plants.

Concerned about the coal ash wastewater’s potential impact on aquatic life, elected officials and environmental groups made plans to challenge Dominion’s permit in court.

Dominion eventually reached a settlement with the Prince William County government and the James River Association, specifying how it will treat the wastewater before dumping it into the rivers.

In Chesterfield, Dominion also has faced questions about how it plans to manage the coal ash that will be left behind once the ponds are drained.

Both coal ash ponds at the company’s Dutch Gap plant were built before the government required installation of synthetic liners and other environmental protections.

As a result, citizens say, the toxic elements contained in coal ash have been leaching into the soil underneath the ponds for decades – and will continue to do so unless the ash is excavated and transported to a lined landfill.

Peter Martin, a member of the local environmental group Hands Across the Lake, calls unlined coal ash pits “a ticking time bomb.”

Chase co-sponsored a bill during the 2016 General Assembly that would have required Dominion to remove all coal ash from unlined ponds and store it in lined landfills, but the legislation died in a Senate committee.

Dominion’s representatives in Richmond successfully argued that requiring the company to remove all coal ash from its storage ponds would cost $3.2 billion and result in increases to customers’ monthly bills.

Dominion is spending millions to build a modern lined landfill – specifically for the purpose of storing coal ash – at its Chesterfield power station.

But to the frustration of some citizens, none of the ash currently being stored in the slurry ponds is expected to be transported to the new landfill.

Instead, Dominion plans to store the coal ash in place and keep it dry by covering it with two layers of soil and a synthetic liner.

“We also will have an extensive monitoring system to make sure the groundwater is protected,” said Jason Williams, Dominion’s manager of environmental services.

It’s also unclear if one of the two slurry ponds is located in a James River flood plain, which could lead to contaminants spilling into the river during a major storm.

Dominion officials have done survey work to determine the risk of its lower pond flooding. But Tom Pakurar, vice president of Hands Across the Lake, said the flood plain question has yet to be answered.

“What I would like to achieve is a winwin for the river, to protect the environment and also protect Dominion’s right to use and discharge water,” Pakurar said.

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