Bacon's Rebellion

How Clean Is Clean Enough?

Coal ash pond at Bremo Power Station. Photo credit: CBS 19

Regulations for cleaning up Virginia’s coal ash ponds are much stricter — and more expensive –than the old rules. But do the new standards do enough to protect water quality?

by James A. Bacon

Two years ago, few Virginians had any idea that coal ash posed a threat to the environment. Then in February 2014 a Duke Energy facility near Eden, N.C., spilled 39,000 tons of coal-ash slurry into the Dan River, which flowed downstream into Virginia. The incident alerted Virginians to the potential hazards of dozens of lightly regulated coal ash ponds in the Old Dominion. Now, as the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) implements new regulations to clean up those ponds, the disposal of this coal-combustion residue has become a front-burner issue.

The new rules require power companies to drain the ash ponds of water and cap them to prevent rain water from percolating through. The water must be treated to remove heavy metals mixed with the ash, and it must be tested to ensure it meets DEQ standards before it is released into the river.

But when Dominion Virginia Power applied for permits to treat the water from coal-ash ponds at its Possum Point facility on Quantico Creek and its Bremo plant on the James River, scores of citizens appeared at the public hearings last month to express opposition. Corey Stewart, chairman of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors, excoriated Dominion and DEQ. “They don’t care about the public or anything other than the bottom line,” he said of Dominion. “As a county, our first duty is to protect public safety, and Dominion isn’t doing that, in collusion with the state government.”

Dominion and DEQ defend the new rules and water permits, which they say are far stricter than the old regulations, tougher than the minimum standards mandated by the EPA, and tighter in some ways than the standards enacted in North Carolina, site of the Duke Energy spill.

“Dominion has a very comprehensive and robust plan to clean up the environment,” said Dominion spokesman David Botkins. “Our plan and the permits being issued are some of the most stringent ever issued by DEQ on this type of thing.  The water discharge portion will be safe and not harmful or dangerous in any way to human, animal or aquatic life.”

Although the measures are tighter than the old ones, environmentalists say they fall short of what’s needed. The Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) advocates moving excavating the coal ash and moving it to dry, clay-lined storage away from the river.

As for the permits approved by the State Water Control Board for Possums Point and Bremo, they create a toxic “mixing zone” where the treated coal-ash water enters the river and could send toxic plumes downstream in low-water conditions. Under the worst 10-year drought scenario at Dominion’s Bremo facility,  says SELC attorney Brad McLane, the release of treated water could create a plume 16 feet wide, 2,000 feet long, and toxic enough to kill aquatic life.

McLane would like to see tighter restrictions on mercury and arsenic levels in the discharge so that river water never exceeds safe levels. And in addition to testing the treated coal ash water before it’s discharged, he’d like Dominion to test water quality in the river itself. “The mixing zone is an area of the river where the water is allowed to be toxic,” he says. “Dominion will not be required to shut down operations if the water in the mixing zone falls below standards, only if the concentrations are high enough that water outside the mixing zone dimensions violates standards.”

DEQ spokesman Bill Hayden minimizes the threat. “The permit limits the size of the plume to the greatest extent possible. It’s very unlikely that those [unsafe] conditions will be met. It’s theoretically possible, but it won’t be a common occurrence. It would require a very low flow. Our position is that [the permit] would allow the standards to be met the vast majority of the time.”

(There is a separate issue issue regarding the Possums Point permit, where DEQ allowed Dominion to keep a “toe” drain, the purpose of which is to divert storm and ground water from the coal ash ponds. The Potomac Riverkeeper Network charges that the drain has been discharging contaminated water. Dominion says its tests show that water from the drain is comparable to background groundwater.)

Location of Virginia coal ash ponds.

Coal ash to the front burner

Coal ash is the mineral residue from the combustion of coal. It contains mercury, arsenic, zinc, antimony and lead, among other metals, which at sufficiently high levels can kill aquatic life and threaten human health. For decades, electric utilities and industrial companies disposed of ash by moving it in slurry form by pipe into large ponds. Typically, the ash settled to the bottom while rainwater accumulated on top.

Under the old regulations, utilities were required to test the surface water before it could be discharged. If it the water did not fall within safe limits, it had to be treated. Treatment was not as extensive as under the new process, says Dominion spokesman Dan Genest, “but the waters that were released were protective of the environment and human health.”

Episodically, containment dams would collapse and coal ash would flood nearby communities. Then in December 2008, there occurred the worst coal ash spill in U.S.history. The walls of a Tennessee Valley Authority containment dam ruptured, releasing hundreds of millions of gallons of ash-laden slurry into the town of Harriman, Tenn., and tributaries of the Tennessee River, destroying 12 homes and killing thousands of fish. As Americans awakened to the fact that hundreds of lightly regulated ponds dotted the landscape, the Environmental Protection Agency embarked upon a years-long process of developing regulations to prevent more disasters.

The coal ash issue subsided from the public view for several years, then erupted again with the Duke Energy episode. A National Institutes of Health study contended that ecological, recreational, human-health and aesthetic-value costs totaled $295 million. Pleading guilty to violations of the Clean Water Act, Duke Energy agreed to pay $102 million in fines.

After years of study, the EPA enacted new regulations in late 2015 that treated coal ash as a solid waste. Using the EPA regulations as a model, Virginia’s DEQ drafted its own. After considerable back and forth with environmentalists, DEQ added several measures to strengthen the rules, especially in the area of testing and monitoring.

Dominion’s plans

In April 2015, Dominion announced its intention to close all of its coal ash ponds and to develop a site-specific plan for each facility that would be in “full compliance with current state law and regulation as well as the new federal regulation.” The company will focus first on the Possum Point plant in Prince William County, which has five ponds, and the Bremo plant in Fluvanna County, which has three.

At both plants, the ash will be consolidated in a pond away from the river, dewatered, and enclosed in place by capping it with a high-density polyethylene layer and covering that with 24 inches of soil and vegetative cover to match the contour of the landscape. The cap will be designed to protect the ash from rainwater, thus limiting leaching into the groundwater. The Bremo plant will consolidate three ponds into one using the same system.

From the consolidated coal ash ponds, water will flow into a one-million gallon tank where tried-and-tested water-treatment methods — aeration, ph adjustment, flocculants, clarifiers, filtration — will remove solids and dissolved constituents, says Cathy Taylor, Dominion’s director of electric environmental services.

The water then will flow into one of two tanks, where it will be tested for 23 constituents three times per week and reported to DEQ weekly. When results show the water to be safe, the tank will discharge water into the river while a second tank receives water from the treatment facility.

Additionally, the utility will conduct a monthly test on two aquatic species: water fleas and fat-head minnows. The health of these species provides a backup indicator of water quality.

If the water fails to meet quality standards, Dominion must cease releasing water into the river immediately and submit a plan to remedy the problem. Says Taylor: “Between the frequency of the monitoring and the frequency of reporting, this is the most stringent permit I’ve ever seen in my career.”

Although the dewatering process at any individual site should take only six to nine months, plus prep and clean-up work, Dominion has said that it expects it will take three to four years to close the 11 coal ponds at all four locations.

The total cost of all this work? Dominion incurred a $325 million liability in 2015 for cleaning the coal ash ponds, according to State Corporation Commission spokesman Ken Schrad. The company tried to recover $121 million of that amount in its 2013-2014 base rate review but the SCC determined that it was a 2015 liability.

SELC objects

Acting on behalf of the James River Association and the Potomac Riverkeeper Network, SELC announced in early February that it plans to appeal the State Water Control Board permits. “DEQ is reading the law differently than we do,” says McLane.

One of SELC’s concerns is that Dominion will test the quality of treated water only before it enters the river. The discharge water is allowed to exceed minimum safety standards. EPA and DEQ assume that mixing the discharge with the river water will dilute toxic concentrations to safe levels. That assumption may not be justifiable, says McLane. Pond owners should test the actual river water and test to see if heavy metals are accumulating in fish tissues.

“The mixing zone is an area of the river where the water is allowed to be toxic,” McLane says. “Dominion will not be required to shut down operations if the water in the mixing zone falls below standards, only if the concentrations are high enough that water outside the mixing zone dimensions violates standards.”

DEQ and Dominion respond that the water flow in Quantico Creek and the James River will be sufficient to dilute toxicity almost all the time. The only time when there might be a problem is during droughts when river flows shrink, but such events should be rare. DEQ has modeled its standards to keep the river safe during the worst drought likely to occur within a 10-year period. Because the dewatering process at each site should take no more than nine months, Dominion says, it is unlikely that any site will encounter even the worst-case 10-year conditions.

McLane counters that at modest additional cost, Dominion can reduce arsenic and mercury levels to significantly lower levels, eliminating any chance of violating safe-water standards in the river. Alternatively, he says, utilities could reduce the volume of discharges to match reductions in the river flow. But DEQ will not consider this compromise, he adds.

Although river sampling is not required as part of its wastewater discharge permit, Dominion says that it it will be required as part of its solid-waste discharge permit for both power stations, says Genest. Hearings on those permits are scheduled for this spring.

Preston Bryant, environmental chief under former Governor Tim Kaine and now on the staff of McGuire Woods Consulting, puts the rules controversy in perspective this way: The Duke Energy spill washed 39,000 tons into the Dan River and flowed 20 miles but ongoing analysis has yet to show any long-term damage.

“There were no fish kills. No turtle kills. No toxic metal standards violated,” says Bryant, who has performed consulting work for Duke Energy. “Think about what Dominion is doing by treating and testing that water. From a water quality perspective and an aquatic life perspective, I have to believe it’s not going to endanger Quantico Creek or the James River.”

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