2016-07-13 / Featured / Front Page

'Toxic soup': Pressure rises on Dominion, DEQ to mitigate impact of coal ash

By Jim McConnell

At Thomas Dale High School last week, the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club served up bottles of “Coal-Aid” made from river water that environmentalists say is contaminated by Dominion Virginia Power’s coal ash. 
Ash Daniel/Chesterfield Observer At Thomas Dale High School last week, the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club served up bottles of “Coal-Aid” made from river water that environmentalists say is contaminated by Dominion Virginia Power’s coal ash. Ash Daniel/Chesterfield Observer Management of coal ash generated by Dominion Virginia Power’s Chesterfield facility is no longer just a local concern.

That became clear last week at a public hearing held at Thomas Dale High School’s West campus, when one of the first citizens to speak noted that he came from Loudoun County, a nearly 150-mile trek, and asked state officials to more effectively regulate “a deadly menace.”

“We’re talking about what level of poisons can be acceptably dumped into the James River,” said John Flannery, who sits on the soil and water conservation board in Loudoun, an affluent Washington suburb.

Flannery, one of about 100 people to attend the hearing, also called the coal ash wastewater Dominion plans to discharge into the river “toxic soup.”

He and many other speakers urged the state Department of Environmental Quality to require Dominion to more thoroughly treat the wastewater before it enters the river.

“DEQ needs to raise the bar,” said Glen Besa, a county resident and director of the Sierra Club’s Virginia chapter.

The state’s environmental regulatory agency has issued a draft permit establishing the terms by which Dominion can drain and discharge water from two coal ash storage ponds at its Chesterfield power station, as part of the utility company’s federally mandated pond closure plan.

Dominion is closing 11 ash ponds at four Virginia facilities, including Chesterfield. The company already has begun to de-water ponds at its Possum Point and Bremo Bluff power stations.

Besa told the two state officials who moderated last week’s public hearing that he frequently paddles his kayak in a section of the James River near Dominion’s coal ash wastewater discharge area.

Tom Pakurar, vice president of Chesterfieldbased environmental group Hands Across the Lake, claimed that children take kayak lessons offered by the county’s parks and recreation department in the same section of the river Besa referenced.

“They’re in and out of kayaks in waist-deep water that is polluted with coal ash,” he said.

According to Cathy Taylor, Dominion’s senior environmental and sustainability adviser, de-watering of the Chesterfield coal ash ponds is expected to begin in fall 2017.

Dominion estimates that more than 280 million gallons of treated wastewater will be discharged from the ponds over a three-month period.

Dominion officials contend that heavy metals found in coal ash, such as arsenic, lead and chromium, will be diluted below federal and state standards as the wastewater mixes with billions of gallons of flowing river water.

But Besa doesn’t like the idea of adults or children paddling kayaks in a “mixing zone,” and environmental groups have expressed concern about potentially devastating effects on aquatic life in and around the discharge area.

“We need to set standards that are protective of our most vulnerable species,” said Jamie Brunkow, the lower river-keeper for the James River Association.

Taylor said Chesterfield’s draft permit, which incorporates additional water treatment measures being implemented at Possum Point and Bremo, already is “significantly more stringent” than the one under which the facility currently operates.

Prior to discharge, the wastewater will be tested by a third party to ensure it meets federal and state requirements. The draft permit requires sampling to be conducted three times a week, with weekly reporting to DEQ.

“We’re committed to doing this right,” Taylor said. “We live here too and want to ensure our neighbors and the community knows exactly what we’re doing, when we’re doing it and why.”

Dominion has implemented significant environmental improvements at the Chesterfield power station, Taylor noted, spending nearly $1 billion on air pollution control equipment over the past decade. The company also is working on a $300 million landfill to manage coal ash generated in the county once its ash ponds are closed.

Dominion’s critics, including members of Hands Across the Lake, charge that instead of prioritizing environmental protection, the company simply is complying with federal directives in the least expensive way possible.

Some state lawmakers have joined environmental groups in calling for Dominion to excavate the coal ash in its ponds (once it has been de-watered) and move it to a landfill that has modern technology to prevent contamination.

That’s what is happening in North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia, where utilities are moving their ash away from waterways and either recycling the material or storing it in lined landfills.

Dominion officials contend that excavating all of the coal ash in its 11 Virginia ponds and transporting it to a lined landfill would cost $3 billion and result in sharp rate increases for its customers across the commonwealth.

The company’s plan is to cover the dry ash with an impermeable liner, a device to collect any water that might seep through the liner, and two layers of soil. Keeping water away from the coal ash, officials say, will prevent toxic elements contained in the ash from leaching into the unlined soil under the ponds.

“We will monitor the groundwater for at least 30 years,” Taylor said.

A group of Duke University scientists published their findings last month from tests that indicated metals found in coal ash have leached out of a pond at Dominion’s Chesterfield plant.

A federal judge is expected to rule this summer on a lawsuit filed by the Sierra Club against Dominion, alleging that the company violated the federal Clean Water Act by allowing arsenic from coal ash ponds at its since-closed Chesapeake power station to contaminate the Elizabeth River.

Now environmental groups are lobbying members of the General Assembly in the hopes of getting a bill approved during the 2017 session that would force Dominion to remove coal ash from unlined ponds.

State Sen. Scott Surovell introduced a bill earlier this year that had the same objective, but the bill failed to make it out of committee.

Amanda Chase, who represents Chesterfield in the Virginia Senate, expressed concern about the unlined ponds during a recent interview and committed to finding answers to several “unresolved questions” related to Dominion’s coal ash management plans.

“Clean water is a bipartisan issue,” she said. “I’m hearing what some of my constituents are saying and trying to reconcile it with what Dominion is telling me, but I haven’t come to any conclusions.”

Asked after last week’s hearing if any of the information presented would convince DEQ to stiffen the requirements in Dominion’s permit, county resident Bob Olsen conceded “probably not.”

“They were hearing us,” he said. “But were they listening?”

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