2017-02-15 / Featured / Front Page

GOP’s Chase takes aim at Dominion

Bill would force utility to study coal ash excavation

Trucks carry coal ash to a retention pond at Dominion’s Chesterfield power station, a sprawling complex near the James River. 
JAMES HASKINS Trucks carry coal ash to a retention pond at Dominion’s Chesterfield power station, a sprawling complex near the James River. JAMES HASKINS State Sen. Amanda Chase assured constituents last year that even though she had accepted campaign contributions from Dominion Virginia Power, she wouldn’t hesitate to oppose the utility giant in the General Assembly.

The first-term Chesterfield legislator is living up to that pledge.

Chase, a Republican, signed on earlier this month as co-patron of a bill that would require Dominion to evaluate the cost of excavating tons of coal ash from large, unlined containment ponds at its Virginia power stations and transporting the ash to a lined landfill.

“I wanted to make sure Chesterfield had a voice and wasn’t excluded from whatever talks are taking place,” Chase said during a telephone interview last week.

Sen. Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax) introduced the legislation, which also calls for Dominion to identify and resolve pollution caused by its facilities and demonstrate that it can prevent coal ash from impacting environmentally sensitive areas.

Coal ash, a waste product of burning coal to generate electricity, has been found to contain heavy metals such as arsenic, lead and chromium.

After Surovell’s bill passed a Senate committee with support from only two of its seven Republican members, Chase went to work. She spoke with several of her fellow GOP senators and convinced eight of them to vote with her.

Despite opposition from Dominion and a 21-19 Republican majority in the Senate, the bill passed 29-11.

“We were very pleased to see this clean water bill passed by the Senate and hope the House of Delegates will also see fit to approve it,” said Kate Addleson, director of the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club.

“This bill would provide incremental progress, but is nonetheless essential to ensuring coal ash disposal is more closely evaluated and water contamination from its harmful pollutants less likely.”

Ten Republicans voted for Surovell’s bill, including all three senators who represent Chesterfield: Chase, Glen Sturtevant (R-Richmond) and Rosalyn Dance (D-Petersburg).

It remains to be seen whether Chase can persuade a majority of the House of Delegates to vote against Dominion, a company that wields significant influence in Richmond.

Republicans hold a 66-34 majority in the House, which also must approve the coal ash bill before it can be submitted for signature by Gov. Terry McAuliffe.

According to Chase, the bill was referred to a House subcommittee with the intention of killing it. The subcommittee was scheduled to meet Monday afternoon.

Chase has lobbied two House leaders who represent parts of Chesterfield – Republicans Kirk Cox and Lee Ware – to bring the bill out of committee and schedule a vote for the full chamber.

“They have the influence to make something happen,” Chase said. “I think they took me seriously. We just have to wait and see what they do.”

In the meantime, Chase continues to press Dominion for firm estimates of what it would cost the company to excavate coal ash from the ponds at its Chesterfield power station and transport it by rail to a lined landfill in Amelia.

The Amelia landfill already takes coal ash from some of Duke Energy’s North Carolina facilities, she said.

Acknowledging their potential impact on the environment, utility companies in North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia have committed to excavate several of their ash ponds and move the material away from large bodies of water.

Environmental advocates, such as the James River Association, have called on Dominion to follow suit.

In a Jan. 25 letter to the state Department of Environmental Quality, Southern Environmental Law Center attorneys Nathaniel Benforado and Gregory Buppert claimed that James River Association representatives found elevated levels of arsenic, boron, hexavalent chromium and other pollutants in water and soil samples collected in the Dutch Gap Conservation Area.

The state-owned property is adjacent to Dominion’s Chesterfield power station and includes more than 800 acres of wetlands, woods and diverse wildlife.

Benforado and Buppert cited the James River Association’s findings as proof that coal ash is leaking out of the storage ponds and contaminating the environment.

“We urge DEQ to take appropriate action regarding these unpermitted discharges and ensure that the coal ash pond closure plans provide a long-term solution for stopping the pollution of state waters,” they wrote. A Dominion spokesman, Robert E. Richardson, said the Chesterfield power station is in full compliance with its state permits and “fully committed to protecting the environment.”

Dominion officials contend that covering dry coal ash with a synthetic liner and soil – known as “capping in place” – will allow them to comply with a directive from the Environmental Protection Agency to close the containment ponds as quickly as possible.

They estimate that excavating and transporting all of the ash currently stored at four Virginia power stations – Chesterfield, Bremo Bluff, Possum Point and Chesapeake – would cost approximately $3 billion.

The State Corporation Commission would permit the company to recover its expenses by increasing utility rates for its 2.2 million Virginia customers.

But Chase wants Dominion to provide a more definitive estimate. She said company officials assured her she would have that information Monday.

“Before we put this into law, we need to know exactly what the cost is going to be,” Chase added. “We need to get citizens’ input and ask if this is the way we want to go.” ¦

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