2016-06-22 / News

Environmental group digs into Dominion’s coal ash

By Jim McConnell

Editor’s Note: In the course of reporting on this story, the Observer didn’t supply Dominion Virginia Power with enough information to allow the utility to respond appropriately. We also did not independently verify the claims made by Hands Across the Lake.

Dominion officials say the “corrugated pipe” from which water samples were taken by the environmental group is not connected to the company’s coal ash pond. The outfall for the lower pond on Dominion’s Dutch Gap property “is not reachable” by private boat, a company official said, without traversing beyond “three floating environmental protection berms.”

Dominion said it’s likely that the water samples taken by Hands Across the Lake were from a stormwater pipe that isn’t connected to the lower pond.

This was no pleasure cruise.

Members of Chesterfield-based environmental group Hands Across the Lake were on a mission when they boarded a boat last month and took it down the James River to Dominion Virginia Power’s Dutch Gap plant.

Their objective: to obtain samples of the water that is regularly discharged into the river from a large coal ash storage pond on the utility company’s property.

Recognizing that Dominion officials were unlikely to grant direct access to the ash pond, the Hands Across the Lake delegation motored down a river channel to the location of the pond’s corrugated discharge pipe and began collecting samples of water flowing out of the pipe.

Tom Pakurar, the group’s vice president, recalled that the liquid more closely resembled India ink than water.

“What was unique about the sample is that it was a deep, dark black,” he said.

Pakurar sent identical water samples to a laboratory in South Carolina and to Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech professor credited last year with exposing dangerously elevated levels of lead in Flint, Michigan’s drinking water supply.

Pakurar said the independent analyses returned identical results. Dominion’s coal ash water tested above the state’s maximum standards for arsenic, lead and chromium – just three of the heavy metals that have been found in coal combustion byproducts.

According to a document provided by Hands Across the Lake, the water contained 170 parts per billion of arsenic. The maximum allowable by the state Department of Environmental Quality for the protection of human life is 10 parts per billion.

Lead tested at 98.4 parts per billion, well above the state’s standard of 15 parts per billion.

Chromium also was found at a concentration of 118 parts per billion. That exceeded the state limit of 100 parts per billion.

“Dominion has been dumping this stuff into the river at Dutch Gap for many years,” said Bob Olsen, a member of Hands Across the Lake and perhaps the company’s most vocal critic.

Dominion has done so with permission from the state’s environmental regulatory agency, but now the Chesterfield power station’s Virginia Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit is up for renewal. Before DEQ reissues the permit, it plans to hold a public hearing July 6 at Thomas Dale High School.

The VPDES permit addresses the discharge of cooling water, industrial wastewater and stormwater. It also addresses wastewater associated with the closure of the Chesterfield facility’s coal ash pond as mandated by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Earlier this year, the state water control board granted Dominion permission to drain millions of gallons of polluted wastewater from coal ash ponds at its Possum Point and Bremo Bluff power stations, treat it and discharge it into the Potomac and James rivers, respectively.

Dominion’s plan, which relied heavily on the capacity of both rivers to dilute the heavy metals in the wastewater until the material met state standards for protecting human life, sparked outrage across the commonwealth.

The Prince William County Board of Supervisors considered filing a lawsuit against DEQ to prevent the discharge.

An environmental group, the James River Association, also announced its intent to challenge Dominion’s permits in court.

Dominion reached a settlement with that group in April by agreeing to perform enhanced treatment of the Bremo coal ash wastewater before it was discharged into the James River. The company also has committed to monitor fish tissue for elevated levels of metals.

Dominion spokesman Dan Genest confirmed Monday morning that under the Chesterfield power station’s VPDES permit, it will perform the same enhanced treatment of coal ash wastewater that was part of the Bremo settlement.

In addition to its concerns about the wastewater discharge, Hands Across the Lake continues to lobby vigorously against Dominion’s plan to drain the coal ash pond at its Dutch Gap facility and cover the dry ash with an impermeable liner and two layers of soil.

Dominion insists that keeping water away from the coal ash will prevent toxic elements contained in the ash from leaching into the unlined soil under the ponds.

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

Hands Across the Lake maintains that the most effective way to protect the environment from coal ash is to dig up the material once it has been fully drained and store it in a lined landfill.

A bill introduced earlier this year by state Sen. Scott Surovell would have required Dominion to do just that, but the legislation failed to advance out of committee.

The local environmental group’s argument appeared to gain steam earlier this month when a report by Duke University scientists was published in a scientific journal.

According to the peer-reviewed study, which was published in Environmental Science and Technology, the coal ash pond at the Chesterfield power station is among 21 facilities in five states leaching metals into nearby water.

Members of Hands Across the Lake met with state Sen. Amanda Chase recently to discuss both the results of their own testing and the broader implications of the Duke study.

Chase signed on as a co-sponsor of Surovell’s bill and has committed to facilitating an ongoing dialogue between her constituents and Dominion.

“There are still a number of unresolved questions that I’m trying to answer,” Chase said. “I promise no rock will be left unturned. I’m not going to let this go until I know Chesterfield is safe. I just want to make sure we’re doing the right thing.”

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