Tag Archives: Coal ash

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.

The Right Way to Test for Coal Ash Contaminants

A North Carolina riverkeeper inspects testing samples of coal ash taken from the Dan River.

A North Carolina riverkeeper inspects testing samples of coal ash taken from the Dan River. Photo credit: WRAL.

So, it looks like the there will be a pause in the solid-waste permitting process for Virginia coal ash. Governor Terry McAuliffe had submitted an amendment to legislation that, if approved, would require Dominion Virginia Power to compile more information on contamination around its coal ash sites and study alternative closure methods before the state issues the permits. Now Dominion has decided to go along, which means political opposition to the idea could evaporate.

“We concur that it is a prudent course of action to seek and consider an evaluation of the assessments on the appropriate closure methods based on the individual features of each site before seeking necessary solid-waste permits,” wrote Dominion CEO Thomas F. Farrell II. “Dominion finds the proposed amendments to Senate Bill 1398 to be workable, and is committed to completing the site assessments before pursuing solid waste permits regardless of the outcome of the legislation.”

McAuliffe’s amendment would restore key provisions to a bill co-sponsored by Sens. Scott A. Surovell-D-Fairfax, and Amanda F. Chase, R-Chesterfield, whose legislative districts include Dominion’s Possum Point Power Station and Chesterfield Power Station, each of which has millions of tons of coal ash to dispose of. (See the Richmond Times-Dispatch story here.)

Dominion had originally opposed the testing and study provisions, which were stripped out by the House of Delegates. But if the power company drops its opposition to McAuliffe’s amendment, as Farrell’s letter indicates, Surovell and Chase likely will get their way.

According to the bill summary, HB 1398 will require owners of coal ash ponds (1) to identify water pollution emanating from the ponds and address corrective measures, and (2) evaluate the feasibility of “clean closure.” Clean closure would entail removing the coal ash from ponds where it has been stored to lined landfills. Dominion has estimated that the cost of landfilling could amount to $3 billion, but environmental groups have argued that the cost would be much lower if the utility recycled the material as an additive to cement and other products.

Bacon’s bottom line: Pausing the permitting process to get a better handle on what’s happening at the coal ash ponds is a good idea. Frankly, despite considerable testing by both Dominion, environmental groups and even Duke University, little can be said with certainty about the process at each of Dominion’s four sites by which groundwater migrates through the coal ash and contaminates either well water or nearby rivers and streams.

Any testing regime must be rigorous enough to provide definitive answers. The last thing we need is set of ambiguous results that Dominion and environmental groups try to spin to their advantage in another contest of P.R. and political clout. Any credible testing program should recruit outside experts, perhaps from Duke or perhaps from a Virginia university, who can identify the questions to be answered and what protocols will provide definitive answers.

Dominion has conducted tests on its property and found little evidence of contamination at Possum Point, Chesterfield and the Bremo Power Station, but a federal judge recently used Dominion data to conclude that coal ash its closed Chesapeake plant was contaminating groundwater. Testing by riverkeeper groups of groundwater and surface waters just outside of Dominion property show elevated levels of heavy metals which, at sufficient concentrations, can be toxic to aquatic life and human health. Additionally, Duke University has conducted extensive testing in North Carolina and Virginia using “forensic tracers” that have found elevated levels of heavy metals in groundwater near Bremo and Chesapeake. But other Duke tests have found that elevated levels of the carcinogen hexavalent chromium, also associated with coal ash, is endemic in piedmont groundwater and in many cases cannot be attributed to the coal combustion residue.

Complicating any analysis is the fact that trace levels of heavy metals and carcinogens are frequently found in groundwater and surface water as the result of natural processes. Levels vary depending upon local geology. The existence of trace elements of heavy metals in groundwater near coal ash ponds is not in itself proof that the heavy metals came from the coal ash. The trace elements could be ubiquitous in the area, but no one knows unless tests are conducted some distance from the power plants. Ideally, any testing regime for Dominion’s coal ash ponds should adjust for background levels of contaminants.

Another complication is ascertaining the movement of groundwater. For example, the water from several wells near Possum Point have shown elevated levels of heavy metals. It is easy to deduce from the proximity of the wells to coal ash ponds that the contaminants come from the ponds. But to demonstrate the point conclusively, one must show that the groundwater migrates from the coal ash ponds toward the wells, and not in some other direction. To make that proof, it is necessary to conduct extensive sampling and create detailed maps that mark the geographic scope and elevation (in feet above sea level) of the underground water and determine the direction of the water flow. Only if it can be documented that underground water is migrating from the coal ash pond toward the wells can one reasonably conclude that the coal ash is to blame for elevated levels of well-water contaminants. If the water is migrating away from the wells, the well-water contaminants probably have another source.

Adding another layer of complexity to the analysis is estimating how much contamination the groundwater picks up while migrating through coal ash. Dominion maintains that its coal ash pits do not come into contact with the water table; the deepest part of the ponds have a higher elevation than the underground water table. However, using Dominion’s own maps, the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) contends that the bottom reaches of the coal ash ponds at Bremo and Chesterfield intersect with the water table. If the SELC is right, groundwater that migrates through a portion of the coal ash could pick up contaminants along the way.

The question then arises, how long must the water be in contact with the coal ash in order to pick up trace metals? That is a function of the chemistry of the coal ash, how tightly or loosely the metals are bound to inert materials, and the speed of water migration, which depends upon the permeability of the clays and rocks. If the groundwater comes into contact with only a small percentage of the coal ash for a short time, the leeching of heavy metals could well be minimal.

If it can be demonstrated that measurable levels of metals leach into the groundwater, another question must be answered: What volume of contaminants, and how rapidly, does the groundwater feed into surrounding rivers and streams? While U.S. District Court Judge John A. Gibney Jr. found that Dominion’s Chesapeake Coal ash ponds did contaminate the groundwater and that the groundwater did reach the Elizabeth River in violation of the Clean Water Act, he also found no damages because the contaminants were so diluted by the massive water volume of the river that aquatic and human health were unaffected. Continue reading

Chesapeake Coal Ash Ruling — Advantage Dominion

Judge John A. Gibney Jr.

My initial reaction to Judge John A. Gibney Jr.’s ruling in Virginia’s first coal ash-related federal court case was to call it a draw. As I blogged yesterday, both the Sierra Club and Dominion Virginia Power found aspects of the judge’s order that supported their positions. But as I sort through the implications for the ongoing debate over coal ash in Virginia, I’m thinking that Dominion was the real winner in the long run.

True enough, the Sierra Club and its attorneys with the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) did win one important tactical victory: Gibney found that arsenic-tainted groundwater passing through the coal ash ponds at Dominion’s former Chesapeake Energy Center (CEC), did, in fact, reach the Elizabeth River in violation of the Clean Water Act.

Here’s how Seth Heald, chair of the Sierra Club’s Virginia chapter, framed that finding in a press release:

A federal court has found Dominion responsible for breaking the law and polluting the Elizabeth River. That is important for all Virginians who seek to hold the utility responsible for its mishandling of toxic coal ash. Now we must push Dominion to do the right thing and get this toxic ash out of the groundwater and away from the river, which is highly susceptible to disastrous flooding from sea-level rise and other climate-change effects.

But the judge also found that Dominion had been a “good corporate citizen,” had cooperated with Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) “every step of the way,” and “should not suffer penalties for doing things that it, and the Commonwealth, thought complied with state and federal law.”

More importantly, Gibney applied what is, in effect, a cost-benefit test to any proposed remedy. While it is true that a tiny volume of leachate reaches the Elizabeth River, arsenic concentrations have been rendered harmless by dilution in the massive volume of river water. No threat to aquatic life and human health has been detectable so far. Unless evidence emerges that arsenic levels are reaching dangerous levels, he saw no justification to spend upwards of $600 million to excavate and remove the coal ash.

Gibney also found Dominion’s remedy of “monitored natural attenuation” — in effect, letting nature run its course — to be inadequate as well. He ordered Dominion to conduct more extensive monitoring of sediment, water and wildlife in and around the Chesapeake cite, and to report the results to the Sierra Club’s counsel and the DEQ. “In the event of a significant change in the amount of arsenic in the water or sediments,” Gibney wrote, “either party may move the Court for further relief.”

But Gibney’s cost-benefit test favors Dominion as the coal-ash controversy unfolds. Riverkeeper groups have opposed Dominion’s requests for solid-waste permits at its Bremo and Possum Point power stations. They argued, as the Sierra Club did in the CEC case, that evidence of contaminated groundwater migrating into nearby water bodies is grounds for removing the coal ash to lined landfills away from the water regardless of expense. But the application of Gibney’s logic to future cases would mean that demonstrating the leakage of small volumes of contamination into surface waters is not sufficient to seek a massively expensive remedy. The leakage must be on a scale to affect aquatic health and human safety.

Over a half century of burning coal at the Chesapeake power plant, Dominion accumulated 3.4 million tons of combustion residue and disposed of it in coal ponds. The ash contained high levels of arsenic — an estimated 150 tons. In 2014, samples of groundwater from ten wells around the ash landfill showed arsenic concentrations higher than 10 micrograms per liter, the groundwater protection standard set by DEQ. At one location, the judge noted, the arsenic concentration reached 1,287 micrograms per liter.

Gibney accepted the Sierra Club’s arguments that groundwater migrates from the coal ash to the surface waters of the Elizabeth River and its tributaries. In so doing, he rejected Dominion’s contentions that the groundwater was unconnected to the surrounding water bodies, and that arsenic traces found in the Elizabeth River originated from other industrial sources. Wrote the judge:

Dominion argues that because sediments move upstream and downstream with the tides, it is impossible to tell where the sediments used for the poor water samples originally came from. Although some tidal action may move sediments around, it defies logic to argue that an enormous amount of arsenic does not contribute to the arsenic in soil and water right next to it, especially given the evidence of groundwater movement from the mound outward.

While the evidence shows that Dominion does discharge some arsenic into nearby surface waters, Gibney reasoned, “it does not show how much.”

The Court cannot determine how much groundwater reaches the surface waters, or how much arsenic goes from the CEC to the surrounding waters. .. What the Court does know, however, is that the discharge poses no threat to health or the environment. All tests of the surface waters surrounding the CEC have been well below the water quality criteria for arsenic….. The CEC is surrounded by an enormous body of water, and even a large arsenic discharge would amount to a drop in the bucket.

Continue reading

Dominion, SELC Spin Coal Ash Ruling as Victory

Dominion Virginia Power and the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) are both declaring victory after a ruling by a federal judge regarding Dominion’s disposal of coal ash at its retired Chesapeake Energy Center.

U.S. District Court Judge John A. Gibney ruled today that the coal ash ponds are contaminating the Elizabeth River with arsenic and that the process of “natural attenuation,” or letting nature take its course, is a “completely ineffective solution,” says a press release issued by the SELC, which represented the plaintiff, the Sierra Club.

“The judge agreed with the Sierra Club’s experts, and rejected the testimony of Dominion experts who said arsenic does not reach the Elizabeth River,” said the statement.

But Dominion found much to celebrate in Gibney’s ruling as well. “The court has confirmed that there has been no threat to health or the environment resulting from the coal ash stored at its former Chesapeake Energy Center,” said a Dominion statement. “The court noted there has been ‘no evidence that shows any injury … has occurred to health or the environment.”

Furthermore, the ruling noted that Dominion had abided by all permits and “should not suffer penalties for doing things that it, and the Commonwealth, thought complied with state and federal law.” Accordingly, the court imposed no penalties on Dominion.

That’s the breaking news. I’ll try to have more tomorrow regarding the implications of the ruling for coal ash controversies at Dominion’s Bremo, Possums Point and Chesterfield power stations.

Prince William Supervisors Demand Coal Ash Studies

Prince William County Board of Supervisors Chair Corey Stewart speaking at the coal ash public hearing.

Four members of the Prince William County board of supervisors appeared at a public hearing last night to express concerns about Dominion Virginia Power’s plan to pursue the “closure in place” option for disposing the coal ash at its Possum Point Power Station.

The Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) held the hearing as part of its evaluation of Dominion’s request for a solid waste permit. More than a hundred citizens appeared at the hearing at Potomac High School, frequently erupting into jeers and cheers throughout the evening.

Describing the coal ash disposal as “the most important environmental issue facing our county in decades,” Woodbridge Supervisor Frank Principi called upon DEQ to engage in intensive information gathering before issuing a permit. His request, repeated by numerous citizens, echoes legislation backed by Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Mount Vernon, that would require owners of coal ash ponds to assess closure options and demonstrate their long-term safety before DEQ grants a permit.

Specifically, Principi asked the DEQ to release the data for testing water quality at Pond D, where the coal ash is being consolidated and capped with a synthetic liner, and release test results from a surface water sampling plan. Further, he demanded that DEQ conduct an alternatives analysis to see if recycling and landfilling coal ash would be safer.

Principi also said he wants to see documentation of measures to prevent a “catastrophic failure” of Dominion’s cap-in-place proposal. “Nobody here wants to repeat the mistakes of Buffalo Creek, Kingston or Dan River,” he said, citing three notorious examples of coal ash spills.

Board Chairman Corey Stewart, a Republican candidate for governor, appeared midway through the hearing and ramped up the rhetoric. It was unacceptable to leave four million tons of coal ash in place, he said, especially given Dominion’s track record of dealing with the County. “Dominion has been less than honest with Prince William County. Dominion lies. You have to be very skeptical of what they tell you.”

Dominion did not respond to the criticisms leveled against it. Cathy Taylor, Dominion’s senior environmental officer, delivered prepared remarks at the beginning of the hearing that repeated the company’s talking points.

Coal ash has been stored safely at Possum Point since 1948, Taylor said, but new EPA regulations require the company to close the ponds permanently. The company is de-watering the coal ponds now. The company has made proactive improvements to the dewatering process to “make the system better, more effective,” and it is posting water-quality testing results “so neighbors know that Quantico Creek is being protected.”

When the de-watering is complete, the next phase will be consolidating the coal ash from five ponds into the 64-acre Pond D. Under the requested solid waste permit, Dominion would cover the pond with “a high-density polyethelene cap to prevent rainwater or any moisture from coming into contact with the ash; a drainage layer designed to drain water away from the cap; then 24 inches of soil and vegetation.”

The company has already installed a monitoring network of 24 wells around the coal ash ponds, Taylor said. “If groundwater monitoring indicates that further action is needed, then both state and federal requirements mandates that additional measures will be put int place.” Pond D will be inspected on a regular basis to maintain integrity of the cover system, she added, and a professional dam-safety engineer will inspect the facility once a year.

While citizen comments were overwhelmingly opposed to Dominion’s plan, two women opposed the alternative of trucking coal ash to a landfill. Possum Point Road is a narrow, winding, two-lane road not constructed for truck traffic, said Eileen Thrall, who lives on the road. She is worried about congestion and the potential for traffic accidents.

Greg Buppert, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), warned that Pond D “will not have two basic features that all modern landfills are required to have in Virginia to protect groundwater: a synthetic liner under the ash and a leachate collection system.”

Recent monitoring shows that heavy metals emanating from coal ash at Pond D are getting into the groundwater, Buppert said. “Will Dominion’s closure plan stop this pollution? The answer is that we don’t know. Dominion is required to demonstrate that groundwater is not in contact with the ash at Possum Point. But the company won’t provide that information until October 2018, at which point the cap-in-place construction could be complete.”

“Is Dominion’s plan the best solution for dealing with the coal as at Possum Point? Again we don’t know,” he said. “DEQ and Dominion should not rush forward to cap ash at Pond D  at Possum Point before assessing the full range of alternatives for dealing with this legacy waste.”

Prince William County has well-established authority to regulate landfills within its borders, Buppert said. Given the sentiments expressed by county supervisors at the hearing, he said, county intervention is a real possibility.

Landfill, Recycle or Close in Place?

Coal ash disposal underway at Dominion’s Possum Point Power Station. Photo credit: Dominion Virginia Power

  • 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.

coal_ash_closures

Number of coal ash ponds, by company, that are being closed in place. (Click for more legible image.)

Atlantic Coastal Plain. Image source: Wikipedia

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.

Continue reading

Is Recycling a Practical Solution for Coal Ash?

State Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Mount Vernon, recommends coal ash recycling.

State Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Mount Vernon, recommends coal ash recycling.

State Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Mount Vernon, represents homeowners living near Dominion Virginia Power’s Possum Point Power Station, which is in the process of disposing of millions of cubic yards of coal ash accumulated over the years. The coal combustion residue, he told the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Conservation & Natural Resources this afternoon, is a “booming, growing, ongoing problem.”

Dominion proposes consolidating the coal combustion residue from five ponds into one, which it will cap with a synthetic liner and monitor for leakage of potentially toxic heavy metals. But tests have found elevated levels of metals associated in the groundwater around the facility, and Surovell wants better protection for his constituents as well as other Virginians living near other coal ash sites. He has submitted a trio of bills that would require Virginia electric utilities to evaluate the options of coal ash recycling and/or disposing of the material into a synthetically lined landfills with leachate collectors.

Numerous coal ash ponds are scattered around Virginia, and Possum Point is furthest advanced in the regulatory process for closure. “This is new to everyone in the United States,” Surovell said, adding that he wants to make sure Dominion’s remedies don’t “blow up in a hundred years.”

William L. Murray, director of public policy, Dominion Virginia Power.

In response William L. Murray, Dominion’s director of public policy, told the committee that Virginia’s Department for Environmental Quality (DEQ) is staffed with “experienced, apolitical regulators.” Surovell’s proposals, he said, amount to an alternative regulatory regime. “The fundamental premise is that there’s something wrong with our current regulatory structure. We respectfully disagree with that.”

Electric utilities have been storing coal ash for decades in impoundments, mixing the residue with water to keep the particles from blowing away. Responding to highly publicized spills of coal ash into Tennessee and North Carolina rivers, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued rules in late 2015 requiring electric companies to de-water the coal and safely dispose of the dry material. In Virginia, the DEQ is responsible for issuing waste-water and solid-waste permits tailored to the conditions of each site.

Dominion got off to a quick start but ran into opposition last year from environmental groups and local landowners, who said that its plans to dispose of the coal ash on-site would contaminate local water supplies. Tests around Possum Point have shown elevated levels of metals associated with coal ash, but a Duke University study suggested that trace metals in groundwater also can occur naturally. Although it is it unclear if the coal ash ponds were to blame, Dominion has offered to replace wells for seven homeowners with municipal water.

Electric companies in North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia recycle, or plan to recycle, large percentages of their coal ash by selling it for use primarily as a cement additive to make concrete. At many sites, they will truck the ash to state-of-the-art landfills with synthetic liners, caps, and leachate collection systems. The Southern Environmental Law Center, which has handled litigation in Virginia and the other states, contends that Virginia should adopt the same practices.

There is considerable commercial demand for coal ash in Virginia, said Surovell. Indeed, there is so much demand that concrete manufacturers are importing the material from China and Poland. It makes no sense to import coal ash when there is plenty available at Dominion’s power stations, he said. Because the ash often requires an intermediate processing step known as beneficiation, recycling the residuals could create jobs in the commonwealth, he said.

One of Surovell’s bills, SB 1383, would require all Virginia electric utilities to “recycle as much of their stored coal ash as is imported into the Commonwealth each year, on a pro rata basis.” The bill would allow the utilities to recover its treatment costs from the taxpayers. Mimicking President Trump, Surovell told the committee, “I think this bill could be huuuge, and create tons and tons of jobs. … I want to make Virginia great again.”

A second bill, SB 1398, would require utilities to assess their closure options — closure in place, recycling, landfilling — and submit their evaluations for review by DEQ and the public. A third, SB 1399, would require “coal combustion by-products be removed for disposal in a permitted landfill meeting federal criteria and that the impoundment site be reclaimed in a manner consistent with federal mine reclamation standards.”

Murray said that Dominion already recycles about 700,000 tons of coal ash a year generated by its coal plants in Mecklenburg, Chesterfield and Virginia City, as well as one it co-owns with the Old Dominion Electric Cooperative in Clover. The material is used in concrete, wallboard and even bowling balls.

If concrete manufacturers are importing coal ash from overseas, why isn’t Dominion recycling all of its coal combustion residue? The circumstances vary from location to location. The problem at Possum Point, said Murray, is that the company would have to truck literally thousands of loads of the material along a residential road, creating issues with congestion, noise and diesel exhaust. It doesn’t take much imagination to think that Surovell’s constituents would object to that solution.

Dominion Tweaks Coal-Ash Dewatering Process

Coal ash pond at Possum Point Power Station.

Coal ash pond at Possum Point. Photo credit: Prince William Times and Potomac Riverkeepers Network.

Dominion Virginia Power has temporarily shut down the $35 million water treatment facility at its Possum Point Power Station as it adjusts the process of cleaning water from its coal ash ponds,

Levels of selenium, a chemical element that can be toxic at high levels, rose above a “trigger” point specified in agreement between Dominion and Prince William County, reported the Prince William Times. However, Dominion was never in violation of its water quality permit, which requires the company to test treated water for selenium and a dozen other coal-ash contaminants.

Dominion officials attribute the pause in de-watering the coal ash ponds to “lessons learned” from operational challenges at Possum Point. Changes detailed in a revised engineering report, which must be approved by state and county officials, should result in discharges of selenium and zinc even lower than called for in the water permit. Also, the water-treatment facility should operate more efficiently.

“We decided to stop, redesign and update,” Jason Williams, environmental manager, told Bacon’s Rebellion. The company plans to switch from a geotube technology to clarifiers and settling tanks like the system in operation at the Bremo Power Station, he said. Also, by adding two more water-holding tanks like at Bremo, there will be less stop-and-go in the water discharge. “It will be much more efficient than firing up the system, waiting for test data, and discharging.”

Dewatering should resume early next year, pending regulatory approvals.

Possum Point De-watering Permit Upheld

Possum Point coal ash ponds

Possum Point coal ash ponds

A Richmond Circuit Court judge has upheld the state’s issuance of a water-discharge permit for Dominion Virginia Power’s coal ash pond at the Possum Creek Power Station.

The permit sets the effluent limits and monitoring requirements for the discharge of water from coal ash Pond D. The Potomac Riverkeepers Network had challenged the permit on two main grounds: (1) that the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) had failed to conduct an analysis of the best available technology to control the release of toxic compounds; and (2) that the discharge of “metals-laden” waste-water into the Quantico Creek added to the impairment of the creek in violation of the Clean Water Act.

Judge Beverly W. Snukals ruled that state regulators followed the law in issuing the permit. Also, she wrote, “DEQ had substantial evidence in its record to support its conclusion that the Permit protects existing instream water uses in Quantico Creek.”

Dominion is pleased with the court’s ruling, said Dominion spokesman Bob Richardson. “We’ve worked hard to design a system that treats the water better than the stringent limits set by DEQ and we prove our commitment to the environment everyday as we do the work required to safely close ash ponds at Possum Point and across our fleet.”

“We are still in the process of reviewing the Court’s opinion, but we are disappointed with the outcome,” said Greg Buppert, senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, which is representing the Potomac Riverkeepers. “We strongly believe Quantico Creek and the Potomac River deserve the highest level of protection from Dominion’s decades of coal ash contamination at Possum Point.”

— JAB

Hexavalent Chromium May Be Endemic in Piedmont Well Water

hexavalent-chromiumby James A. Bacon

Hexavalent chromium, a potent carcinogen, is detectable in 90% of the North Carolina water wells sampled in a Duke University research study, and in many cases exceeds levels deemed safe for drinking water.

The chemical, made famous by the movie “Erin Brockovich,” originates not from coal ash ponds but from the natural leaching of mostly volcanic rock in aquifers across the Piedmont region, said Avner Vengosh, professor of geochemistry and water quality at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment in a press release issued yesterday.

Piedmont formations with volcanic rocks are common across the southeastern United States, Vengosh noted, so millions of people in regions outside North Carolina with similar aquifers may be exposed to hexavalent chromium without knowing it. Vengosh published his findings Oct. 26 in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Science and Technology Letters.

The controversy over hexavalent chromium has roiled politics in North Carolina. In 2015 the state’s water-quality officials issued temporary “do not drink” recommendations to residents living near coal-burning plants after tests detected potentially harmful levels of hexavalent chromium in their well water samples. Because elevated levels of chromium typically occur in coal ash, many people assumed the contamination was linked to the coal ash ponds. The Vengosh study, states the Duke press release, is the first to show otherwise.

A similar controversy has raged in Virginia where the compound has been detected in well water of homes near the Bremo Power Station and the Possum Point Power Station where Dominion Virginia Power is de-watering coal ash ponds and has applied for permits to cap the dried coal-combustion residue in place.

The Duke study undoubtedly will change the tenor of the coal ash debate in Virginia, whose Piedmont geology is similar to North Carolina’s. The Duke findings are consistent with Dominion’s contention that the hexavalent chromium found in wells did not originate from its coal ash ponds. Dominion’s own measurements had indicated no such groundwater impact.

But controversy over coal ash disposal will not go away. Tests by the Potomac Riverkeeper Network have found elevated levels of lead in wells near the Possum Point coal ash ponds and also have detected potentially toxic levels of other heavy metals found in coal ash. However, Virginia Department of Environmental Quality tests have not replicated the results.

Meanwhile, the Duke findings raise issues about the safety of well water generally. Speaking about the situation in North Carolina, Vengosh said: “The bottom line is that we need to protect the health of North Carolinians from the naturally occurring threat of hexavalent chromium, while also protecting them from harmful contaminants such as arsenic and selenium, which our previous research has shown do derive from leaking coal ash ponds. The impact of leaking coal ash ponds on water resources is still a major environmental issue.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Hopefully, Vengosh’s findings will elevate the discussion about coal ash in Virginia. The most important takeaway is this: Just because a particular chemical is found in both in coal ash and the water from nearby wells, we cannot assume that the chemical necessarily came from the coal ash. Underground aquifers contain many chemicals that have leached from naturally occurring rocks and minerals. Nature is not pristine. Underground water is not as pure as distilled water. When we start measuring water quality in parts per billion, we will find all sorts of compounds we never imagined were there.

Conversely, just because hexavelent chromium occurs in natural conditions, we cannot assume by analogy that lead, selenium, arsenic or other chemicals found in well water near coal ash ponds are naturally occurring as well. We just don’t know. We need to conduct more comprehensive testing before making multi-billion dollar decisions on the best way to dispose of coal ash and/or commit ourselves to remedies that we (and our descendants) have to live with for hundreds of years.