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2017-03-01 / Featured / Front Page

Sen. Chase asks governor for help with coal ash

BY JIM McCONNELL STAFF WRITER


ASH DANIEL ASH DANIEL A local state senator’s quest for information regarding potential coal ash contamination at Dominion Virginia Power’s Chesterfield power station is not quite finished after all.

On the penultimate day of the 2017 General Assembly session last week, Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, contacted Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s staff and requested that the governor attach an amendment to a Senate bill she co-sponsored with Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax.

The amendment would require a one-year “cooling off period” before the state Department of Environmental Quality can issue the permits Dominion needs to complete the closure of coal ash containment ponds at four of its Virginia facilities.

Chase hopes to use that time to more closely examine claims that coal ash is leaking from the unlined ponds at the Chesterfield power station and polluting the adjacent Dutch Gap Conservation Area, which includes more than 800 acres of wetlands, woods and diverse wildlife.

She also is trying to obtain a firm estimate of what it would cost Dominion to excavate tons of ash currently stored in its Chesterfield ponds and transport it via rail to a lined landfill in Amelia County.

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

“This [ash] is a cancer. You can leave it in or take it out,” she said during an interview last week. “We know the only thing that will work for sure is to take it out.”

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.

Local environmental advocates have called on Dominion to do the same.

In a Jan. 25 letter to DEQ, attorneys with the Southern Environmental Law Center 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.

Dominion officials deny that ash from the Chesterfield ponds is contaminating the surrounding environment.

A company spokesman, Robert E. Richardson, said the Chesterfield power station is in full compliance with its state permits and “fully committed to protecting the environment.”

“Virginia has an existing regulatory model to manage the safe storage of coal ash. It is working,” Richardson said via email.

Dominion has begun the process of dewatering ash ponds at four power stations – Bremo Bluff, Chesapeake, Chesterfield and Possum Point – to comply with federal regulations.

The version of Surovell’s bill approved by the state Senate last month required Dominion to weigh its options for excavating the dry ash and either transporting it to a lined landfill or recycling it for use in building products.

The legislation established a Jan. 1, 2018, deadline for the company to submit a report to state regulators and members of the General Assembly.

After Surovell’s bill was sent to the House of Delegates, however, a subcommittee struck language that prohibited DEQ from issuing Dominion’s solid-waste permits until state officials had reviewed the company’s findings.

To Chase’s chagrin, the House passed a version of the bill that permits the state agency to issue the permits prior to receipt of Dominion’s self-assessment.

“I look at it as a public health bill – we’re talking about people’s water,” she said.

Chase wants to have Dominion’s report in hand before the company begins covering the dry ash with a synthetic liner and multiple layers of dirt – a process known as “capping in place.”

To accomplish that, she’s hoping for help from an unlikely source: a pro-business Democratic governor with just nine months left in office.

McAuliffe has until next month, when both chambers of the General Assembly reconvene to consider the governor’s amendments, to submit his own revised version of Surovell’s coal ash legislation.

Under state law, should McAuliffe amend the coal ash bill, it still has to be approved by simple majorities in the House and Senate.

There’s no guarantee he’ll do so, but Chase is optimistic.

“I think the governor understands our situation and is willing to find an amenable solution,” she said. “Things are moving in the right direction.” ¦

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