Several hundred chanting demonstrators gathered at the State Capitol grounds on Saturday, Feb. 20. Many of them held signs chastising Dominion Virginia Power, the state’s powerful electric utility, and its plans to dump treated coal ash wastewater into the James and Potomac rivers.
One protester was bedecked as a greedy and deadly Uncle Sam with dollar bills, American flags and the face paint of a skull. Others held signs reading “Kicking Coal’s Ass and Taking Names.”
Mike Tidwell, director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, held a banner listing the cell phone hashtag for an online petition calling for the resignation of David K. Paylor, head of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. Paylor supports the utility’s wastewater permits.
Indeed, Dominion is under fire from many sides these days.
- Scott Elmquist
- Protesters gather at the steps of the State Capitol on Feb. 20 to demonstrate against Dominion Virginia Power and its plans to dump treated coal ash wastewater into the James River and a creek flowing into the Potomac River.
In the state’s Blue Ridge Mountains, residents ardently oppose the $5 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which will carry natural gas from West Virginia to North Carolina. Critics say that Dominion isn’t doing enough to shift from fossil fuel generation to solar and wind. Homeowners along the lower James River and in the Northern Neck are livid about the utility’s plans to string power lines across scenic waterways.
But none of the issues has fostered as much public anxiety locally as Dominion’s plans to permanently close its coal ash ponds.
In Richmond, people have expressed shock that the utility would dump coal ash wastewater into the very river that provides the city with drinking water, recreation and some of the best urban scenery in the country. The plan seems glaringly incongruous given the positive buzz the city is now generating. Its dynamic arts and restaurant scene is garnering national attention. The UCI Road World Championship bike race last September won international attention. New residents flocking to urban neighborhoods wonder why Dominion would risk the city’s most precious natural asset.
Dominion, in turn, has seemed stunned by the unexpected outpouring of anger. Officials insist that they’re trying to prevent ecological disasters by taking swift action on the coal ash ponds. They say they’re the victim of misinformation and have taken strong steps to shore up their image and explain what they want to do.
Style sought permission from Dominion to visit two of the coal ash pond sites. Dominion declined the visits, but agreed to respond to questions primarily in writing. Based on their responses and other reporting, here is a primer on the coal ash situation.
What is coal ash and how dangerous is it?
Coal ash is what’s left when electric utilities burn coal to generate power. For decades, utilities including Dominion Virginia Power typically have stored coal ash at the sites of their power stations.
Coal ash contains various toxic chemicals and heavy metals that can harm human health, according to the advocacy group Physicians for Social Responsibility. Those include arsenic (cancer), lead (impaired growth for children), mercury (reduced IQ in children), boron (liver and kidney damage) and selenium (impaired vision and loss of appetite), among others.
The chances of being harmed or dying as a result of coal ash intake depend upon the amounts ingested, although small, background levels of those toxic substances are present throughout nature.
In December 2014, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ruled that coal ash wasn’t a “hazardous” chemical and didn’t require the sophisticated disposal methods required at hazardous chemical waste disposal sites. The decision angered environmentalists but cheered utility officials, because it makes cleaning up coal ash waste cheaper and easier for them.
Why did it take so long to address the coal ash threat?
For decades, coal ash disposal at wet or dry sites next to power generators was loosely regulated. Utilities, including Dominion, minimized their threat.
Then in 2008, the coal ash problem received national attention when an impoundment at the Tennessee Valley Authority broke open and spilled 5.4 million cubic yards of toxic waste into two rivers. News media reported massive fish kills and high levels of heavy metals in two rivers.
In 2014, a corroded pipe broke at a Duke Energy plant in North Carolina. The spill polluted 70 miles of the Dan River, a drinking water source, with 39,000 tons of coal ash and 27,000 gallons of coal ash wastewater. Some crossed over the Virginia state line.
Experts disagree on the environmental harm. Green groups such as the National Wildlife Foundation say that heavy metal levels rose significantly in the Dan River. Others, including paid consultants for Duke Energy, minimize the damage. Duke has agreed to pay more than $102 million in fines for the spill.
This also resulted in new EPA regulations last year that treat coal ash as a solid waste. It requires utilities to permanently seal or remove their coal ash ponds.
- There are 11 coal ash ponds at these four Virginia plants.
Where are coal ash sites?
Experts count about 2,000 disposal sites in the country, with most of them in the southeastern United States. Dominion has 11 sites at its Bremo, Possum Point, Chesterfield and Chesapeake power plants.
Landfill operators also store coal ash. Garbage giant Waste Management operates a nearly 800-acre landfill in Jetersville near Amelia, about 40 miles southwest of Richmond. It’s been accepting coal ash for 20 years, according to company spokeswoman Lisa Kardell.
Waste Management is now accepting contaminated soil dug up from Duke Energy’s coal ash spill in the Dan River in 2014. It will also take coal ash from the spill. The pollutants arrive by rail. Kardell declines to say if the company accepts coal ash from Dominion.
What is Dominion’s plan?
Dominion decided April 15 to close all of its coal ash ponds. Spokesman David Botkins writes that his company wants to move quickly on resolving its coal ash situation “because it is good environmental stewardship to get coal ash ponds cleaned up, and not let them sit any longer.”
Moving briskly, it took Dominion and the Department of Environmental Quality less than a year to get a proposal for two disposal plans for Bremo Power Station on the James River and the Possum Point Power Station in Dumfries next to the Potomac River. On Jan. 14, the State Water Control Board voted 5-1 to grant Dominion’s permits.
Next up, perhaps by June, will be applications for similar permits to dump treated coal ash wastewater into the James River just below Richmond at the Chesterfield Power Station and into the Elizabeth River at the Chesapeake Power Station.
Lawyers at the James River Association and the Southern Environmental Law Center, along with property owners, outdoors enthusiasts and others have questioned why the water board, DEQ and Dominion are getting “flawed” permits in place so quickly.
- Scott Elmquist
- The Bremo Power Plant has been in service burning coal since 1931, but recently switched to natural gas.
What does the Bremo permit do?
Dominion has had permits from the state for years to dump storm water runoff and surface water from this facility. For years, it has stored a watery soup of coal ash in three ponds called East, West and North. Depending on the rainfall, there can be as much as 357 million gallons of polluted water in the ponds.
Most of the coal ash from the West Pond has been moved to the North Pond, which also will take the rest of the West Pond ash and the water it contains. The West Pond will then be covered with soil and planted with grass. Water from the East Pond also will be removed and sent to the North Pond and be capped and closed.
What happens next?
This is the most controversial part. The next stage is to dewater the North Pond, whose fluids contain typical heavy metals and other harmful chemicals and elements.
The danger to health and the environment depends on the concentrations of toxic substances. Dominion’s Botkins writes that the utility plans to put wastewater through several levels of treatment before it is released into the James River. These include physical filtration, removing additional solids, adding chemicals and aerating wastewater.
Dominion has described in general terms how this will be done, but has yet to provide specific details that Department of Environmental Quality will review. Bill Hayden, a department spokesman, says that the permit “does not require treatment but requires that water quality standards be met.”
Dominion hasn’t decided precisely on the type of next-stage treatment it will use, according to Botkins. It may employ some kind of mobile system that will treat coal ash wastewater before putting it in the James. State officials will review the design of such a plant. After dewatering, the ponds will be blanketed with thick plastic sheeting and then filled with soil and vegetation.
The most controversial part of the plan is the release of substandard, treated, coal ash wastewater into the river. It will rely on natural river current flow to further dilute the wastewater to acceptable levels.
So, the water released into the James River won’t be up to standards?
Not at first, according to the plan. Some levels of dangerous heavy metals will remain in the wastewater as it’s pumped into the river. The plan is that still-polluted water will travel in a plume, in which normal river flow will dilute it to acceptable levels. In times of unusually low water flow, the plume would spread downstream and could be 2,000 feet long and 16 feet wide. The release of treated wastewater may take from six to nine months.
Critics say that the plume is toxic and will affect fish and animal life. Richmond’s drinking water intake is about 50 miles away.
Botkins at first wrote that “it’s an exaggeration” to say that the plume is toxic. Then NBC-12 reported last week that the wastewater will contain three times the maximum allowable levels of arsenic and hexavaleant chromium — a carcinogen made famous in the movie “Erin Brockovich.” The film stars Julia Roberts and deals with drinking water contamination by a California electric utility in 1993.
Asked about the report Monday, DEQ spokesman Bill Hayden confirms the numbers cited are in the permit, but says it’s too difficult to explain by email that the levels aren’t harmful.
Critics say the plan should be prohibited. “It’s ridiculous, using mixing,” says Thomas Pakurar, a retired DuPont chemical engineer who works with Hands Across the Lake, a pro-clean water group based in Midlothian. “I don’t like the philosophy. It is risky.” The James River Association and the Southern Environmental Law Center plan to file legal challenges to the Bremo permit. Dominion officials insist their plan will not endanger the river. And that the average volume of effluent released will be far lower than what the permit allows.
- During the protests in February, eight people were arrested on the Capitol grounds.
Why can’t Dominion clean the wastewater to drinkable standards?
Environmentalists at the water board hearing testified that the technology exists, perhaps at a cost of $10 million, for Dominion to treat coal ash wastewater so thoroughly that it could be drinkable.
Asked about this, Dominion’s Botkins responds: “No wastewater treated by a municipality or other industry prior to discharge is at drinking water standards. But it is at standards that are closely regulated and monitored and have to meet strict limits.”
Who will monitor the effluent?
Dominion will be required to take weekly measurements of the surface water in the river but not of the sediment. The Department of Environmental Quality will test water samples along with aquatic life periodically, but the monitoring responsibility rests with Dominion.
Environmentalists question how seriously Dominion takes self-monitoring and how closely it will be overseen. On Jan. 24, a Dominion electric transformer leaked 13,500 gallons of mineral oil into the Potomac River at Crystal City, in Arlington County. The spill polluted a waterfowl sanctuary.
Botkins says that Dominion told regulators within hours about the spill but it took the Coast Guard a week to identify the source of an oily “sheen” on the Potomac River that reached a waterfowl sanctuary and coated birds. Once it saw the evidence, Dominion accepted responsibility, he says. The utility is negotiating civil penalties with DEQ that it may pay.
Why doesn’t Dominion haul away coal ash by rail or truck?
Botkins writes that shipping coal ash away at its four power plants, including Bremo, would involve 1.6 billion truck loads and add $3 billion to consumer bills. Trucks loaded with ash would disrupt street traffic in small towns and ash could fly off the vehicles. By chance, both Bremo and Chesterfield are on major rail lines. Both areas are receiving or have received coal by rail. Much of the coal ash spilled at the Duke incident will be carried by train from North Carolina and southern Virginia to Amelia County. But rail transport has its own set of risks, Botkins notes, and moves the problem somewhere else.
- Scott Ellmquist
- This Amelia County landfill, operated in Jetersville by Waste Management, is about 40 miles southwest of Richmond. It will accept coal ash via rail from Duke Energy’s Dan River spill in North Carolina and Virginia.
What about Possum Point’s permit?
Dominion won a permit to dispose of coal ash at the closed Possum Point Power Station near Dumfries the same day it got the Bremo permit. The disposal methodology is similar, but just as controversial. Coal ash wastewater would be treated and then put into Quantico Creek, where it would be diluted before flowing into the Potomac River.
Local officials, including Corey Stewart, chairman of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors, have been highly critical of the permit. Stewart’s said that Dominion doesn’t “care about anything other than the bottom line.” Others, including Dumfries Mayor George Foreman, support it, according to Botkins. Foreman didn’t respond to an email requesting his views.
The Maryland Attorney General’s Office has said it will fight the permit in court, believing that not enough is being done to safeguard the Potomac River whose shores it shares with Virginia. The water in the Potomac River technically comes under Maryland’s jurisdiction. In response, Botkins writes: “The [attorney general] has accused us of dumping ash into the rivers. That is absolutely false. No ash is going into the river.”
What is the State Water Control Board?
It consists of seven individuals selected by the governor and approved by the General Assembly to make semi-judicial decisions on water-pollution permits and other issues. It typically meets four times a year and its members may or may not have a scientific background to understand the issues they confront.
When asked by Style for biographies of the members, spokesman Bill Hayden at first said he didn’t have them, but produced them within a day.
Board chair Robert Dunn is a retired DuPont official with a master’s degree in chemical engineering. Joe Nash is a Northern Virginia consultant and former Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Department of Energy official. He also writes articles for the conservative, anti-regulation Thomas Jefferson Institute of Public Policy, based in Springfield.
Roberta Kellam is a lawyer from the Eastern Shore who advises the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. Nissa Dean is Virginia director for the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay. Lou Ann Jessee-Wallace owns an advertising and design company. Heather Wood is a consultant who worked at the Virginia Port Authority. Thomas Branin, who didn’t attend the January meeting, is in the construction materials business.
The board is said to keep its distance from interested parties as it collects information for its decisions. But some fear that the board merely rubber-stamps the views of DEQ staff members, who may be too close to the industries they regulate.
“We’re still trying to understand how the water board works,” says Brad Lane, a lawyer with the Southern Environmental Law Center, which is suing Dominion over coal ash issues. “We wonder if we are operating with the same set of rules as Dominion. The process is as clear as mud.”
- Scott Elmquist
- Suzanne Shaver of Richmond kneels before state police at the anti-Dominion protest in February.
Did DEQ and the water board push for a permit too quickly?
Last fall, Quantico Mayor Kevin Brown complained that neither his town council nor local residents were told of the plan. On Nov. 13, state Sen. Dave Marsden and Delegates David Bulova and Scott A. Surovell, now a senator, wrote DEQ director David A. Paylor about their concerns that the permit process was moving too fast.
Speakers at the State Water Control Board hearing Jan. 14 also said that there hasn’t been enough time to study the permits and asked why Dominion and the state officials seemed to be in such a rush.
Indeed, water board member Roberta Kellam — the sole dissenting vote against the Bremo and Possum Point permits — complained at the hearing that Dominion’s plan was “very complicated,” saying, “We’ve never dealt with it before.” She said she was skeptical because the permitting process seemed rushed.
Surovell introduced a bill at the General Assembly on Feb. 3 that would have required Dominion to dispose of its coal ash in landfills. It was defeated.
What about the Chesterfield permit?
Dominion plans to apply for permits to release treated coal ash wastewater into the James River at its Chesterfield Power Station, which is 15 miles south of downtown Richmond near the Henricus Historical Park.
Although the technology for the permits will be similar to the earlier ones, one major difference is the sheer size of the Chesterfield plant. Its coal-fired and combined cycle units produce 1,600 megawatts of power — enough to serve 12 percent of all of Dominion’s 4 million customers.
Such brute strength comes with an environmental price. The Chesterfield station is the largest single air polluter in the state. Dominion has upgraded its scrubbers to improve its air emissions. It’s also a huge coal ash producer. In 2009, the Institute of Southern Studies rated Chesterfield as the 36th largest producer of coal ash waste out of 100 coal-fired plants in the country, based on 2006 federal data.
Another issue is the coal ash that Dominion already has moved to Chesterfield from two of its other sites in Hopewell and Southampton and Mecklenburg counties. Asked if Chesterfield was accepting such coal ash, Botkins at first says no.
When reminded that the Chesterfield Observer had published several stories about the matter, Botkins said that through 2012, the Chesterfield plant did accept such coal ash but stopped in 2013. Transferring the ash was acceptable under permits, but Botkins said that Dominion was remiss about not informing the DEQ and Chesterfield County about the Mecklenburg coal ash.
Dominion is expected to apply for the permit to discharged treated coal ash wastewater into the James River soon, and the State Water Control Board may consider the permit by June. Already, it’s drawing fire from environmentalists and concerned residents.
Pakurar of Hands Across the Lake says his group has been watching the coal ash problem at Chesterfield for years. “You can see it blowing over the surrounding residential areas and it is not right,” he says.
Gearing up for the permit challenge, Pakurar’s group has arranged with Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards to sample water around the power station. Edwards played an instrumental role in identifying the lead that contaminated drinking water in Flint, Michigan.
Dominion also will apply for a permit for its Chesapeake station, whose coal ash situation has long been controversial. Dominion has been embroiled in lawsuits over using 1.5 million tons of toxic coal ash as filler for a luxury golf course in Chesapeake more than a decade ago. Dominion denies wrongdoing.
If its remaining two coal ash permits are approved, Dominion expects to have disposed of all of its coal ash wastewater, and will have all of its coal ash pits permanently sealed within three to four years. That is, of course, if its permits survive legal challenges. S