Environmentalists push county to take a stand in coal ash debate
Less than 100 yards from a storage pond containing millions of tons of coal ash produced at Dominion Virginia Power’s Chesterfield power station, at the bottom of a steeply sloping hill, Jamie Brunkow slips on a pair of rubber muck boots and walks out into the tidal lagoon at Dutch Gap Conservation Area.
It’s low tide on Thursday afternoon and there’s just enough water flowing in Red Cove to cast a sheen on the bright red-orange soil, a color environmental advocates say is a product of decades of contamination from arsenic, lead and other toxic metals seeping from Dominion’s coal ash ponds.
Brunkow, the Lower James Riverkeeper for the James River Association, knows this area well. Over the past nine months, he twice has collected soil and water samples from various locations in the Dutch Gap Conservation Area, which covers more than 800 acres of state-owned wetlands, woods and diverse wildlife adjacent to the James River. The James River Association has tested those samples for the presence of metals commonly found in coal ash, a byproduct of burning coal to produce electricity.
In a Jan. 25 letter to the state Department of Environmental Quality, Southern Environmental Law Center attorneys Nathaniel Benforado and Gregory Buppert claimed that the James River Association’s most recent samples contained elevated levels of arsenic, boron, hexavalent chromium and other pollutants.
Brunkow’s findings largely mirror those of two other groups – including a team of scientists from Duke University – who have conducted their own independent tests of soil and water near the Chesterfield Power Station in the past year.
The conclusion, Brunkow says, is that metals from coal ash in Dominion’s unlined storage ponds are leaching into groundwater and eventually making it to tidal waters that feed into the James River.
“These are illegal discharges,” he adds, showing a reporter the screen of a digital device that measures conductivity in water. A test taken in Red Cove reads six times higher than normal – an indication of metals present in significant quantities.
Officials from Dominion and DEQ insist they have found no evidence of such contamination. Both say the utility company is in full compliance with its state discharge permits.
Still, Gov. Terry McAuliffe and the Republican-controlled General Assembly were concerned enough to pass bipartisan legislation earlier this month that requires Dominion to conduct a full assessment of its Virginia coal ash ponds before DEQ can issue the company permits to begin closing the ponds. Dominion must submit a report on its findings to state officials by Dec. 1.
Brunkow and other environmentalists want the state to force Dominion to dig up the ash and move it to a lined landfill.
Meanwhile, some citizens have lobbied the county government to relocate Parks and Recreation programs currently conducted at Dutch Gap Conservation Area. The county holds kayaking and canoeing classes in a section of the lagoon that is easily visible from the cove where Brunkow claims to have found elevated levels of arsenic.
Phil Lohr, a Chester resident and member of the local group Chesterfield Citizens for Responsible Government, questions the wisdom of continuing to hold classes for children and teens in an area that is now under increased scrutiny.
So far, however, county officials have resisted overtures to conduct those outdoor programs at another location.
“We’ve been talking to DEQ and they don’t have any data that concerns them,” Deputy County Administrator Bill Dupler says. “They have assured us that if anything comes up that is cause for concern, they will let us know.”
Midlothian resident Bob Olsen, a member of the local environmental group Hands Across the Lake, argues that the county is merely “passing the buck” to state regulators.
DEQ, meanwhile, leaves it up to Dominion to perform its own regular water-quality tests and submit the results to the state.
“You’d think the county would be proactive about protecting their citizens, but they’re not,” Olsen adds. “They ought to be telling people to stay away from that area.” Scott Smedley, director of the county’s Environmental Engineering Department, joined supervisors Dorothy Jaeckle and Steve Elswick in meeting with a delegation from Hands Across the Lake last month to discuss the results of the James River Association’s latest Dutch Gap tests.
Jaeckle, whose district is home to Dominion’s Chesterfield power station, notes that county officials began meeting last summer with citizens concerned about water quality issues around Dutch Gap and Henricus Historical Park.
“Although it may appear that we have been silent on the issue, we have had our Environmental Engineering Department review the data provided by the James River Association and the Southern Environmental Law Center,” she says. “While the data indicates some contamination from the coal ash ponds, it does not indicate a human health risk for recreational activities, such as canoeing and kayaking.”
Brunkow acknowledges it is difficult to quantify the level of risk from intermittent exposure to the toxins contained in coal ash.
“Our objective has been to prove that contamination is occurring,” he says. “Our tests specifically look for leaks [from the coal ash ponds] and that’s what we’ve found.” Chesterfield residents also have raised red flags about the fact that Henricus uses a section of an old Dominion ash pond as an overflow parking area for its most heavily attended events.
During a visit to the power station last year, Observer staffers noticed that all trucks used for hauling coal ash to the upper pond must be rinsed off before leaving the facility in order to prevent the accidental discharge of coal ash dust onto public roads.
There is no such requirement for visitors to Henricus who park in the overflow parking area, but Dupler says it’s not necessary because the dry coal ash has been covered with a layer of soil and gravel.
“Some are under the impression that people are driving around and stirring up coal ash. That is not the case,” he adds.
According to Dupler, if Dominion gets permission from the state, it intends to permanently cap the coal ash in that area with a liner and soil.
That’s the same method the company has proposed to close coal ash ponds at its Chesterfield, Bremo Bluff, Possum Point and Chesapeake power stations.
As part of that effort, the state Water Control Board last year granted Dominion permission to drain the contaminated water from its Chesterfield coal ash ponds and treat it before discharging the water into the James River.
Once all the water has been removed, the company could opt to cover the dry ash left in the ponds with a liner and several layers of soil.
The Environmental Protection Agency has declared that such a process, known as “capping in place,” is appropriate for the closure of unlined landfills and coal ash ponds.
Dominion officials contend the liner will keep the ash dry, which will prevent the metals in the ash from leaching out into the ground.
Brunkow disagrees. He says the James River Association’s tests prove that because the bottoms of the ponds are unlined, groundwater will continue to mix with the dry ash and carry toxic metals to the James River if the ponds are capped in place.
Peter Martin, a member of Hands Across the Lake, calls unlined coal ash ponds “a ticking time bomb.”
That’s among the issues Dominion is expected to address in its Dec. 1 report.
“Chesterfield County supports the additional requirements adopted in the state budget for Dominion to evaluate long-term risks associated with the closure of the coal ash ponds,” Jaeckle says. “I believe everyone is committed to balancing out the demand for electricity while minimizing the effect on the environment.” ¦