Anyone Remember the Coal Ash De-watering Controversy?

Bremo Power Station de-watering test results. Click for legible image.

Environmental controversies are flying so fast and furious in Virginia these days that it’s hard to keep track of them all. As for last year’s disputations, they are quickly forgotten. Remember, for instance, the wrangling over Dominion Energy’s plans for de-watering coal ash ponds at its Bremo and Possum Point power stations?

After intense negotiations, riverkeeper groups, the Southern Environmental Law Center, Dominion, and the Department of Environmental Quality settled upon a protocol for treating and monitoring the quality of effluent before it entered the James River and Quantico Creek. How has the arrangement worked out? The absence of headlines this year is one clue. The water-testing results posted on Dominion’s website provide another.

The tests, which cover pH, suspended solids, oil & grease, hardness and 15 heavy metals and other compounds, show that the water treatment process is cleaning the water to the point where the presence of most pollutants is impossible to detect.

At the Bremo station, only arsenic and chloride appeared in measurable quantities among the three samples taken in early May, and the concentration of both chemicals is less than one-tenth of the Environmental Protection Agency’s permit levels.

Possum Point power station de-watering test results. (Click for larger image.)

At Possum Point, five chemicals appear in large enough quantities to be detectable, but all are safely within prescribed bounds. One chemical, thallium, nudges up close to the permit limit but does not go over.

I don’t purport to have any expertise in these matters, but it looks as if the arrangement is working as it should. If you want to browse through a year’s worth of test results, click here.

This is far from the end of the story, of course. Dominion still must obtain permits for de-watering its Chesapeake and Chesterfield facilities. The results at Bremo and Possum Point suggest that Dominion has the de-watering process firmly under control.

However, the company has yet to receive solid-waste permits for disposing of the coal ash after it has been de-watered. Dominion wants to pursue a cap-in-place approach while environmental groups want the utility to bury the material in landfills. That issue will take longer to resolve. Among the uncertainties is determining the extent to which underground water picks up contaminants while migrating through the coal ash pits. Getting answers will require a different testing protocol than the one used for the de-watering process.

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19 responses to “Anyone Remember the Coal Ash De-watering Controversy?

  1. Well it looks like the environmentalists won … they got most of the higher standards they were after , right?

    and DOminion is doing more than they wanted to do originally.

    Despite the suspect poll posted here… . an honest poll of Virginians will show that they do not want the coal ash capped in place… especially down Chesapeake way… They want Virginia to do what other states are doing.

    Each site has existing rail access – and there are several mega landfills in Va with rail access that have the proper liners to accept coal ash, yet Dominion – dishonestly keeps claiming they will have to truck it – at great expense.

    Never has Dominion even given actua estimates that can be independently verified and never have they suggested what it would cost on each months bill… all they have ever said was that it was too costly and throw some number that has nothing behind it in the way of an honest analysis.

    At the very least – Dominion owes Virginians – options and with each option the cost – and the benefits… and those options should be able to be verified.

    It’s totally bogus for Dominion to decide and establish that preference as what they will do and fight other options.

    It’s Virginians who should decide if THEY want to pay – for what option. Dominion is paying nothing. All the costs will be passed on to ratepayers and possibly taxpayers and the choice about what option – belongs to the public not Dominion.

    My bet is that the cost per month spread over 10-20 years of digging and transporting to a liner landfill is minimal… but if you listen to Dominion… it’s multiple millions that Dominion will have to pay – which is simply not the case.

  2. LarrytheG, may have some valid points but, if so, undermines them with his obvious animosity toward Dominion combined with his failure to offer any basis for his conviction that landfills are preferable to Dominion’s ideas.

    I tend to have more trust in analysis and opinion from people who do not appear driven by ideology, anger, and revenge as is the case with the metastasizing number of advocates and “victims’ and, with his hostile language and tone toward Dominion, seems also to be the case for “LarryTheG.”

    Moreover, LaryTheG claims that a poll would show Virginians want the Landfill option. Well I am a Virginian and had no idea there were options and probably would not have chosen the landfill option in a poll, however honest. I want the best solution for the environment conflated with the best solution for the most amount of people. With no factual basis for my feelings, landfills give me the creeps. And, I find myself reflexively scared of them which reflex grows stronger the larger they are and the larger variety of substances they contain.
    So, contrary to LarrytheG’s assertion, I would really want to hear the pros and cons of each before allowing myself to be counted among those who want the landfill option.

    • Essentially, after dewatering we are left with an “unplanned” coal ash landfill covered with an impervious clay cap, but it will not have a bottom liner to prevent potential leaching. The other option is to excavate and relocate the coal ash to a more well-designed landfill with a plastic bottom liner etc. Excavation is extremely expensive, so you have to ask, if it’s worth it? Probably not, but it needs to be a case by case risk assessment. I know a lot of Superfund sites with many barrels of nasty stuff burried that were just capped over as the fix, so I am not too worried about the coal ash if properly capped.

    • duplicate post

  3. re: why are landfills preferable?

    it’s not landfills per se – it’s ANY location that has a certified liner designed to last decades or longer — as opposed to claiming that leaving coal ash in place with no liner but covering it is safe – for decades – because it’s “too expensive” to either construct a liner on site and move the coal ash to that new liner or transporting it to a landfill via rail ( since there are rails at these locations) that has an existing liner.

    Dominion refuses to provide any substantiative cost data for ANY of these options… so that the public can see and understand the tradeoffs and make an informed decision as to what they want – to pay for – because it will be Virginians that pay this cost, not Dominion.

    As far as ideology is concerned, I am NOW a critic of Dominion after seeing how they operate the last couple of years on the major issues like solar, like the ACP, and the need to get more power to the Peninsula.

    And I am a critic because there is a consistent pattern with them which basically boils down to their refusal to engage in an honest dialogue with the public over OPTIONS for each of these issues and instead for them to take one position – theirs – and to then refuse to do anything else but advocate for what they want – when they are a public service company and in the end – Virginians have as much and more legitimacy in weighing in on these issues.

    Instead, Dominion and it’s surrogates portray their refusal to engage in a legitimate process as justified because everyone who disagrees with them is an “environmentalist”.

    I allude to polls taken that show that most Virginians do NOT want the coal ash buried in place and DO want it put in a properly lined landfill either on site or at another site. They DO NOT want the ash sitting for decades and without a liner – likely to migrate.

    I actually think Dominion is and has been a well-run company who does an overall excellent job of maintaining their grid infrastructure and providing reliable electricity – and investors do also.

    But they are now challenged with changes in the industry that is going to be transformed by solar and by demand-side efficiency technologies and they have taken an obstructionist position which appears to be based on what they think is good for them – whether or not it is good for Virginians or for that matter even what Virginians think.

  4. I broke this out from the above:

    re: ” With no factual basis for my feelings, landfills give me the creeps. And, I find myself reflexively scared of them which reflex grows stronger the larger they are and the larger variety of substances they contain.”

    Given the fact that us humans generate waste – poop, trash, coal ash, and other stuff… being “creeped out” does not excuse us from managing it in a responsible way. You – and I – ARE responsible for participating in how we should do that. We have a citizen duty to do that – and to not stand off to the side and do nothing or defend folks like Dominion who are NOT being responsible because of perceived costs … without really doing an honest analysis of those Pros and cons you speak of.

    There ARE pros/cons and there are OPTIONS – each with a cost – and impacts… we currently know almost nothing because Dominion’s basic position is all there is … and they don’t even back up their own position – they wait for the environmentalists and DEQ and regulators to act – then they oppose them to reduce and exempt as much as they can – as they did with the dewatering process and as they are now doing with the coal ash disposal issue.

    “So, contrary to LarrytheG’s assertion, I would really want to hear the pros and cons of each before allowing myself to be counted among those who want the landfill option.”

    So we DO AGREE! So WHEN is Dominion going to lay out the options , costs and impacts and let you and me look at them and take an informed view?

  5. LarryTheG,
    What I did say was that were I polled on the question of cap vs landfill, without additional information, I would not poll for landfills or any solution but would demur. I did not disagree with your assertion that the majority of Virginians would be in favor of that solution, as I have no factual basis on which to contradict you; but that discussion is moot since there is apparently no such poll.

    Yes, I would like to understand the pros and cons of each solution before casting my vote, which is not, as I interpreted your post, what you were urging.

    I did also say that, in your original and now this most recent post, you are alleging or implying a lot of malfeasance on the part of Dominion, the heart of which seems to be that Dominion is intentionally misleading the public or willfully failing to provide data necessary for responsible public oversight and involvement. That may be the case; but in the comments of a Blog as professional and well-curated as this one, those assertions would be more valuable and a greater contribution if you would also provide “evidence” that would support your views, for which passion is a weak substitute.

    Or is this a case not of a single corporate villain but a case where the current corporate-activist-regulatory framework and its requirements for research, testing, information and transparency have not kept up with the complexities of the issues such that the public and its responsible media can procure the best solutions while bulwarking against any one of these groups bullying the others to the detriment of us laypeople?

    Regarding my responsibilities as a citizen, to inform my participation you assert is my obligation, I read Blogs like this. With the myriad of issues today competing for the obligation you enunciate, I can not hope to be sufficiently knowledgeable to make a responsible decision. My recourse is to seek the “truth” by sifting the hopefully considered contributions of bloggers like Bacon, yourself and Tbill, whose response I found valuable. Parenthetically, Tbill’s trust in plastic requires a stretch for me or at least I would like to find that kind of plastic for my boat’s seat cushions.

    From your and TBill’s posts, it would seem that the questions we laypersons would want answered are
    (1) the efficacy of each solution in preventing nasty things from getting out of the pile and
    (2) to the extent the more effective solution is more expensive,
    (2a) how much more effective is the better solution and
    (2b) how much more expensive, expense being measured in fully burdened terms — i.e. dollars but also the less tangible social terms like access to and future cost of power.

    Whose responsibility is it to provide this information? I don’t know. We pay an incredible amount of tax money to fund an exhaustive array of Federal and State research. Should it fall solely on corporations to disprove every activist group’s or regulator’s assertion of undesirability, danger, or whatever? Or should at least some of this cost be born by exceedingly well-funded state and Federal research agencies or by those who would bring the world to a halt on their convictions that they have a truth which will save us from ourselves and would ordain that “you, Mr. Businessman must cease and desist all activity until you prove me wrong?”

    If you think the last sentence exaggerated, overwrought, the rant of an Alt-Right bigot or whatever–perhaps Bacon will set up a separate blog on the personal experiences of this very small businessman and others with Federal and State regulators.

    Thank you for your interest and response.

    • Should it fall solely on corporations to disprove every activist group’s or regulator’s assertion of undesirability, danger, or whatever?

      Very well said. Larry would believe this to be so.

      • of course not but you and Dominion often and usually categorize EVERY challenge as coming from “activists”….

        On controversial issues – Dominion DOES OWE THE PUBLIC – fact-based information as well as OPTIONS with each one showing benefits and impacts as opposed to Dominion’s assertion that they have already found “THE” answer and that’s the only one they support… and never mind about the underlying data –

        And my view – if Dominion thinks they do not owe the public – the full accounting of data and options and pros and cons – then I support a 3rd party to do it – at Dominion’s cost …

        we cannot have one corporation deciding these issues as if they belong to the corporation…

  6. LarryTheG,

    Below is a poll which supports your assertion as to the proclivities of Virginia voters as well as an article which seems to suggest that Dominion is agreeing to the requirements for additional study and information. Not a very depthful list here but perhaps enough to suggest value in further digging.

    http://chesapeakeclimate.org/press-releases/poll-virginia-voters-oppose-governor-mcauliffe-on-fracked-gas-pipelines-coal-ash-disposal/

    http://www.richmond.com/news/virginia/government-politics/dominion-won-t-oppose-pause-in-coal-ash-permitting/article_1bb82c46-7bfa-5d4d-a477-198f69767b65.html

    Mr Bacon, estimable seer in residence, if you are following this, would you think it appropriate to post a new blog and start a thread on how Dominion is in fact handling this issue and what you would expect to be their next moves?

  7. @musingsfromjanus – thank you for participating and on a substantiative basis!

    Bacon has LOTS of “opinions” that usually align with Dominions views… SURPRISE SURPRISE!

    I’m okay with Dominion supporting the blog but not with the lack of “scrupulousness” on the part of Bacon who clearly is with Dominion on virtually all of the issues.

    The bigger problem is that Dominion is attempting to control the narrative – and in this blog, apparently with Bacons “help”.

    I just simply reject the way Dominion is dealing with these issues as if there is only one logical answer and it is the one that Dominion supports as opposed to a full and thorough airing of the facts, AND WHAT THE VARIOUS options ARE – rather than Dominion dismissing all the ones it disagrees with as if that is their prerogative .. it’s not… these issues belong to the public and it is the duty of Dominion – as a regulated monopoly to supply the data , the options, the benefits and impacts of the options… like you’d see in any standard NEPA document – that document MANDATEs such an approach for ANY Federal permit project that impacts the environment, cultural and recreational resources.

    Virginians will pay these costs in the end… and they ought to know how much it will be – on their bills.. as part of the information provided. It’s a simple concept.. that Dominion to date refuses to address and instead continues with their “It’s too expensive but we can’t tell you the specific details” lame approach.

    The purpose of NEPA is to INFORM the decision… and applicants are not allowed to focus only on their preferred option.

    Are they disingenuous? You tell me – when they claim it’s too expensive to truck coal ash to lined landfills when each and every site with coal ash has rail access – that access provided to bring the coal in to start with! And yet both Dominion and Bacon repeat this canard over and over…

    The coal ash issue boils down to one simple premise and that is can you cap the piles now and not worry about what is below the piles getting taken up by the water table below – over the next 50-100 years especially where that coal ash already sits in the water table or close to it.

    It’s a gamble. Dominion wants to take the gamble and most Virginians polled do not.

    Dominion then wants to argue about the CURRENT levels of contamination as if there is not a major problem now – that moving the ash is not justified.

    It’s their point of view! but again – the issue is not right now.. yet Dominion continues to stick to that narrative ..

    and they refuse to give honest numbers – on a per site basis on the cost of excavating the ash and putting in a lined facility – either on-site or at a commercial landfill – and transported by train – not truck.

    Again – if Dominion does not want to do this – then give this job to a 3rd party to do and generate the information that is needed for an informed decision rather than what Dominion proposes with their own selective information.

  8. to reiterate succinctly –

    the coal ash issue has many dimensions and not a single solution. It’s about trade-offs… and in order to intelligently assess them – you have to develop well defined options from which to compare impacts and benefits.

    It is totally inappropriate and just plain wrong-headed for Dominion to control the process and summarily rule out anything other than what they want to do.

    Virginians are the ones with the RIGHT to decide since they are going to pay for the cleanup in the end – anyhow. They want a full analysis and they pretty much do NOT want to cap-in-place – they’re not buying the idea that you can cap in place and it will be fine for generations.. we all know all too well how that works – we have superfunds sites scattered all of the state and it’s simplistic – and dumb concept that most people do recognize it for what it is.

    Dominion wants to argue about contamination thresholds … – currently – and is more than willing to gamble longer term.. as to whether today’s guesses were right or not. That might be a good thing for Dominion in Dominion’s mind but it’s patently a bad idea for the succeeding generations of Virginians…who will end up going back to do the cleanup the way it should have been to start with.

    This is not Dominion’s call. Their job is to get the data on the table.. and answer questions not answered yet – like the real cost of cleaning up each site – on a line-item basis. If they can’t or won’t do it – then the State needs to hire a company that will.

  9. It is totally inappropriate and just plain wrong-headed for Dominion to control the process and summarily rule out anything other than what they want to do.

    Larry, that is an inaccurate description of what happens. DEQ issues the permits, and DEQ controls the process. Dominion applies for a permit. DEQ holds public hearings. Environmental groups and citizens get involved. The media gets involved. Dominion responds. P.R. wars ensue. Behind-the-scenes negotiations occur. In the end, DEQ addresses citizen concerns by adding tighter conditions to the permits (though not, perhaps, as much as the citizens and environmentalists would like).

  10. Pardon me if I could have found this with the proper research but does the following exist from any source:
    (1) the efficacy of each solution in preventing nasty things from getting out of the pile and
    (2) to the extent the more effective solution is more expensive,
    (2a) how much more effective is the better solution and
    (2b) how much more expensive, expense being measured in fully burdened terms — i.e. dollars but also the less tangible social terms like access to and future cost of power.

  11. LarryTheG,
    Full disclosure here — I also support this blog financially, because I believe Bacon is an unusually honest reporter willing to dig into stuff most of us wouldn’t touch even to avoid a root canal but is very important to our well-being, as you have eloquently if acerbically opined. I also have sufficient personal knowledge to state categorically that Bacon would fold the Blog before he would advance opinions or facts he believed untrue or engage in anything unscrupulous. That is pretty hard to find today and it’s why I contribute! And since this Blog is providing you a platform for your ideas, perhaps important but certainly insulting and hostile, I hope you are too.

  12. I looked it up. “Activist: a person who campaigns to bring about political or social change”. If ensuring a clean river and drinking water source for millions of Virginians is equated to campaigning for political and/or social change, then so be it. Been called worse.

    The agreements struck by Dominion appear to have thus far ensured that dewatering discharges from Bremo are protective both of aquatic and human health. This is a result of the voluntary decision by Dominion to meet carefully designed – and not uncostly – treatment criteria proposed by organizations committed to protecting water from degradation and in adherence to the federal Clean Water Act. Especially since the discharge permit lacked these necessary assurances, I am fully appreciative of Dominion’s acceptance of the terms of agreement.

    The statement that “After intense negotiations, riverkeeper groups, the Southern Environmental Law Center, Dominion, and the Department of Environmental Quality settled upon a protocol for treating and monitoring the quality of effluent before it entered the James River and Quantico Creek” is largely factual — except that one of these listed and quite crucial parties played no apparent part in those critical negotiations. Meanwhile, the Board of Supervisors of Prince William County proactively engaged in its constituency’s best interests to prevent further discharges of toxic water to the Potomac. That is local government doing its job well, and deserves mention.

    As these coal waste ponds are dewatered daily, intentions for permanent closure draw nearer — bringing higher stakes and less clearly manageable issues for thorough evaluation. Gov. McAuliffe’s successful efforts to revive the bipartisan legislation to prevent a hasty ash pond closure process provides an opportunity to focus upon the significant nature of how to manage the virulent elephant in the room.

    For readers seeking evidence that “cap-in-place” is a safe means to store the Commonwealth’s billions of gallons of heavy-metal-laden wastes, I urge you to review findings surrounding similarly unlined coal ash ponds in neighboring southern states: https://today.duke.edu/2016/06/ashpondleaks

    Dr. Vengosh – the Duke University professor who led the research resulting in the disturbing findings referenced in the above weblink – was the source of another entry (http://baconsrebellion.com/hexavalent-chromium-may-be-endemic-in-piedmont-well-water/) posted on this blog only a few months ago. That article references hexavalent chromium – a cancer-causing byproduct of coal combustion – as also being a geologically, naturally occurring compound in some piedmont locations. This was a scientifically valid reasoning from a credible, experienced researcher. What is less discussed in the entry, however, is the very real prevalence of a wide array of other quite harmful coal combustion metals in the waters surrounding coal ash ponds. Duke University reports similar findings in Virginia (http://www.richmond.com/news/virginia/duke-univ-tests-find-leaching-from-coal-ash-sites-including/article_e8e34c07-6bff-5c7f-bc49-9ec608a23a3b.html).

    There are a variety of known solutions to effectively manage leaching coal ash ponds. Recycling the solid wastes into useful, economically viable building products is occurring today in other southern states. The most recent available data from responses to an American Coal Ash Association (ACAA) survey of electric utilities shows that in 2014, at least 46 million tons of coal ash were beneficially used to create useful, lucrative products. Duke Energy has reportedly revived an abandoned rail line in order to transport its coal ash from Eden, NC (the site that discharged 39K tons of coal ash and 27 M gallons of slurry into the Dan River) by rail to Amelia County, VA. This has created valuable jobs for a rural Virginia community in permanently and safely storing North Carolina’s coal ash waste in lined, monitored cells. Rail transport travels daily directly adjacent to the Bremo coal ash ponds (remember, rail is how the coal has been and remains delivered). And, it works: http://www.postandcourier.com/business/santee-cooper-s-coal-ash-removal-reducing-arsenic-levels/article_eac23acd-89c7-52aa-b467-927deee37bd8.html

    I for one look forward to reading this blog about options, alternatives and solutions, and how we can move forward with assurances that these polluted waste sites do not leak daily and for near eternity alongside our irreplaceable drinking water sources, into our rivers and groundwater. Let us take full notice of neighbors to the south who are tackling this issue head on.

    Our rivers are our literal lifeblood. And forever is a very long time. Ditching antiquated technologies and polluting coal combustion for renewables is a positive beginning for all Virginians. Abandonment of leaking coal waste pits is not a well-reasoned way to end this virtuous effort to restore health to our communities and waters. The answers to burying the hatchet on old king coal will be found only through the impartiality of sound science and innovative resolve.

    • Riverkeeper, thanks for sharing your informed perspective and participating in the discussion in a positive way. I rely upon comments like yours to inform my reporting. I cover these issues only on a part-time basis, so I can’t keep up with every article, press release and piece of scientific literature. Your links are very helpful to me — as well as to other Bacon’s Rebellion readers.

  13. Riverkeeper,
    Thank you. I knew nothing about any of this a month ago and you and Bacon and LarrytheG have made it interesting and important to me.
    Love the idea of turning the stuff into a product.
    Anyone done that for nuclear waste yet? 🙂

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