- As debate intensifies over how to dispose of coal ash, Dominion Virginia Power says it is following the same approach as many other utilities: closing the coal ash ponds in place.
- Environmentalists want to hold Dominion to a higher standard set by other utilities in the Atlantic Coastal Plain, where many are recycling and landfilling the ash.
- Outside experts say the optimal plan for each power plant depends on its unique circumstances.
Executives at Dominion Virginia Power thought they were being good corporate citizens a year ago by acting quickly to implement Environmental Protection Agency regulations governing the disposal of coal ash. When the EPA published its new rules, the electric utility promptly announced plans to create a long-term storage solution for the containment ponds at its Bremo and Possum Point power stations.
The EPA had enacted the rules in response to the rupture of a Tennessee Valley Authority coal ash pond in 2008 and a spill from a Duke Energy facility in 2014, both of which caused extensive contamination of nearby rivers. The incidents sparked national outrage and stoked demands for measures to prevent another disaster. The fixes that Dominion detailed in its requests for waste-water and solid-waste permits put the company on the fast track to eliminate any chance of a spill from either power plant.
But the power company is not feeling the love. Environmental groups have contested company plans on the grounds that they would not prevent traces of heavy metals from leaching into the groundwater and eventually into rivers and streams. Denouncing Dominion for ravaging the environment, protesters marched on the state capital. Every other day seems to bring another controversial headline.
Rob Richardson, a Dominion spokesman on the coal ash issue, expressed the bewilderment felt by many within the utility. Dominion has been forward-thinking on coal ash, he said. While other companies submitted plans in late November 2016, Dominion unveiled its plans late in 2015. Instead of winning praise and moving expeditiously through the permitting process, the company has been subjected to an endless litany of criticism. Said Richardson: “We’ve been taking a beating.”
Environmentalists have moved beyond the original goal of stabilizing the coal ash. Through lawsuits, press releases and news stories, critics have changed the terms of debate. Dominion may be solving one problem — the threat that breaking levies might send large volumes of slurried coal ash spilling into the James or Potomac rivers — but critics says its plans to consolidate the coal ash in existing, unlined containment pits won’t halt the leaching of heavy metals into the groundwater.
The company did act quickly, but only to take advantage of a loophole in the EPA rule that allowed utilities to close “inactive” ponds with fewer monitoring requirements, says Greg Buppert, a Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) attorney who has represented the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club and local river-keeper organizations in lawsuits against Dominion. The EPA has since eliminated that loophole.
“Dominion is ignoring an emerging industry standard in how utilities are dealing with these ash ponds,” he says. “Throughout the region, utilities are excavating unlined ponds, putting the ash in landfills, and in many cases recycling the coal ash.”
Stung by charges that it isn’t living up to the standard set by other utilities, Dominion recently released data culled from EPA filings. In truth, the company says, its closure practices fall well within the norms of the electric-utility industry. Only a minority of coal ash ponds are being landfilled. Many are being closed in place, as seen in the chart below.
But the chart doesn’t come close to settling the debate. Buppert counters that industry-wide comparisons aren’t relevant. Dominion’s power plants are located in the Atlantic Coastal Plain, a low-lying area where groundwater lies close to the surface. Hydrological conditions are different there than in the Piedmont and mountain regions where many coal plants are located. Utilities in the Carolinas and Georgia have agreed to landfill and recycle their coal ash rather than bury it in pits. Dominion has proposed instead to consolidate its coal ash in unlined pits — one at Bremo and one at Possums Point — and cap them with polyethelene lining and a two-foot layer of dirt. Dominion’s proposal, he argues, does not prevent groundwater from migrating through the pits and picking up leached metals from the ash.
In turn, Dominion argues that comparing its power plants to those of Duke Energy, Santee Cooper, Georgia Power and SG&E (SCANA) on the basis of superficially similar hydrology is flawed thinking. Each power plant is unique. Each site has distinctive topographical and hydrological features. Measures that make sense for one site don’t necessarily make sense for another.
Dominion insists that its approach protects the environment without the huge expense of landfilling the coal ash, which could run up the cost to $3 billion. Furthermore, trucking the coal ash to a landfilled location would take many years to complete, leaving the public little safer from potential spills during the interim than they were before. Indeed, literally thousands of truck trips through residential areas would elevate the risk of traffic accidents while diesel fumes and dust pose a nuisance and health risks.
Who’s right? It gets complicated. Strap on your face mask and buckle your scuba tank for a deep dive into the arcane discipline of coal ash disposal.