Bacon's Rebellion

Coal Ash Mishmash

Location of coal ash ponds and proximity to Virginia rivers. Map credit: Southern Environmental Law Center. (Click for larger image.)

Dominion has narrowed its differences with environmental groups over how to dispose of coal ash, but the conflict is not easily resolved, and uncertainty about the final outcome prevails.

by James A. Bacon

Dominion Virginia Power has settled disagreements with two foes over its plans to discharge coal ash wastewater from its Possum Point and Bremo power stations into Virginia’s rivers and streams, but the battle over coal ash disposal isn’t going away. Not only are the state of Maryland and the Potomac Riverkeeper Network appealing the wastewater-discharge permit for Possum Point, but Dominion still must acquire solid-waste permits for both plants.

Also, within the next year or so, Dominion will file permit applications for its legacy coal ash ponds at Chesterfield Power Station, while Appalachian Power Co. plans to close and cap an ash pond at its Clinch River Power Station. Determined to hold the power companies to the strictest standards possible, environmentalists have vowed to scrutinize each permit.

While coal ash promises to be a contentious issue over the next year or two, differences between Dominion and its opponents have narrowed. By settling its wastewater discharge issues with Prince William County and the James River Association, the utility has created a model that could be applied to the Chesterfield Power Station and elsewhere.

“The permit is incredibly protective,” says Jason Williams, Dominion’s environmental manager in charge of coal ash. “We will be well below the [heavy metal] limits on everything.” The odds of aquatic life being negatively impacted are so low, he says, they are “off the charts.”

While the settlement doesn’t accomplish everything environmentalists would like, James River Association CEO Bill Street says it represents an important, positive development. “We think that [the Bremo Power Station settlement] will serve as the basis for going forward. It shows what’s possible.”

Problems remain. Dominion has not managed to settle with the Potomac Riverkeeper Network for discharges into Quantico Creek. “That waterway is already stressed by decades of metals pollution,” explains Greg Buppert, the attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) who is appealing the permit on behalf of the network. The waterway is more impaired than the James River, he says.

Meanwhile, environmentalists worry that Dominion’s plans for consolidating coal ash on site and capping it with an impermeable liner is a partial and inadequate solution for the long-term storage of the material. Dominion, they say, needs to prevent coal ash from being polluted by excavating the coal ash and moving it to a safe landfill away from waterways.

Coal ash is the residue from the combustion of coal. For decades, power companies put this mineral waste product into holding ponds and mixed it with water to keep down the dust. The resulting slurry contained heavy metals from the coal ash such as arsenic, cadmium, mercury and selenium, which in high concentrations can be toxic to aquatic life. After a calamitous 2008 spill in Tennessee, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) developed regulations, which went into effect in October 2015, to reduce harm from coal-ash ponds across the country. Electric utilities have the option of recycling the ash (typically using it as a component of cement), trucking the ash to a landfill, capping the ponds so rainwater cannot percolate through, or capping with additional measures. Whichever strategy is chosen, the ash must be de-watered first.

In Virginia the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) writes the permits, based on its analysis of what it takes to meet or exceed EPA standards for some 130 different constituents according to three criteria: acute toxicity of aquatic species, chronic toxicity for aquatic species, and human health in Virginia waters. Although the wastewater-discharge permits the agency drafted for Dominion’s Possum Point and Bremo operations are stricter than EPA minimums for some constituents, they were not rigorous enough to satisfy environmentalists. Clamoring for tighter restrictions of heavy metals and more rigorous testing, riverkeeper groups for both the Potomac and James appealed both permits.

Potentially billions of dollars are at stake. Dominion contends that its plan for de-watering, consolidating and capping its coal ash ponds will cost ratepayers an estimated $500 million. Meeting the environmentalists’ demands to truck the dry coal ash to landfills lined with impermeable plastic would cost an additional $3 billion — a massive sum that the company says buys little in the way of improved environmental quality.

To environmentalists, short-term costs are secondary. Bill Street, CEO of the James River Association, concedes that $3 billion would be a “hefty” price tag for a clean-up. “But look at what the James River supports. This is a long-term decision we’re making,” he says. “Futurists talk about water as the defining issue of the 21st century, defining the wealth of nations. It is critical that we manage our water resources wisely. The James River can be our greatest global competitive advantage.”

De-Watering the Coal Ash

EPA enacted its new rules for coal ash ponds in late 2015. Using the EPA limits for each constituent as a floor, Virginia’s DEQ drafted its own approach to applying those standards in the unique circumstances at each site. After conversing with environmental groups, DEQ added several measures to strengthen the rules, especially in the area of testing and monitoring.

Dominion followed quickly by filing for permits to cover its Bremo and Possum Point power stations. In its applications, the company submitted Concept Engineering Reports that described how it planned to treat water from the coal ash ponds before discharging it into Quantico Creek and the James River. Water would be drained from the ponds and run through a series of steps, including aeration, Ph adjustment, coagulant/flocculant mixing, clarifying and settling, filtering, metals adsorption (if needed) and more Ph adjustment. At the end of the process, the water would be held in holding tanks where it would be tested on a regular basis for individual constituents such as heavy metals. In addition, recognizing that multiple chemical might act synergistically, Dominion will immerse minnows and water fleas to test the overall effect.

A variable step in the treatment was metals adsorption. In its internal deliberations, Dominion expected most of the water it discharged — surface water accumulated from rainfall and sitting atop the coal ash — to be clean and require minimal treatment. Running it through an ion exchanger would effectively create distilled water, which would be far more pure than necessary to maintain aquatic health. Dominion planned to skip this step in the treatment process unless testing showed that metals levels were in danger of exceeding DEQ standards. (Since the permit was issued, Dominion has chosen a different technology to eliminate the heavy metals that would not create distilled water.)

Environmentalists noted that Dominion’s permit did not spell out the trigger points at which metals-adsorption step would kick in, and insisted that they be written into the permit. Dominion agreed to do so, and the problem was readily solved.

Another issue was how the permit seemed to allow excessive and unsafe levels of certain heavy metals. As Dominion understood the permit, the heavy metals standards were well within levels deemed scientifically to be safe for aquatic life. But that was not evident without a close examination of the permit and its attachments. The permit standards were based upon an assumption that Dominion would discharge up to 10.2 million gallons of water per day at the Bremo plant, says Williams, the environmental engineer. But the Concept Engineering Report attached to the permit spelled out that the Bremo facility was designed to release a maximum of 2.2 million gallons per day. (That’s the equivalent of 1,500 gallons per minute compared to water flow of nearly 5.5 million gallons per minute for the James River under average conditions.) “In reality,” says Williams, “we’ll be discharging one-fifth the number of gallons” allowed in the permit.

Once Dominion cleared up that point, the James River Association agreed to the heavy metal standards as long as the limits were spelled out in the permit.

As the conversation proceeded, the James River Association and Prince William County tightened the screws on testing procedures. DEQ had required thrice-a-week testing for most heavy metals, and once-a-month testing for other constituents, including the toxicity test for minnows and water fleas — much more frequent than the testing intervals in Duke Energy’s permit in North Carolina. Prince William demanded even more tests for key heavy metals, use of an independent testing laboratory, and reimbursement to the county of outside consulting services to review the tests.

“The regulatory standard is appropriate,” said Jim Roewer, executive director of the Utility Solid Waste Activities Group, an industry group that addresses the disposal of utility waste. “What Virginia has written into its permit is much more stringent than the federal standard.”

“We don’t like to see any heavy metals going into the river — they have cumulative effects,” says Street with the James River Association. “But we believe the settlement will keep the river healthy for all of its users.”

Although the James River Association chose not to appeal the Bremo permit, SELC did appeal on behalf of its client, the Potomac Riverkeeper Network. SELC attorneys argued that the federal Clean Water Act requires use of the “best available technology” to treat the wastewater, even if it exceeds the EPA-DEQ standards. The goal, they say, should not be merely to maintain the quality of Virginia waters but to improve them, if the technology exists to do so.

Dominion spokesman Dan Genest responds that there is no technology standard for heavy metals. “EPA only requires that for suspended particulates.” Regardless, he adds, “We have state-of-the-art equipment that allows us to do much better than the permit requires” for heavy metals.

Moving the Coal Ash

While Dominion has closed the gap with the James River Association over wastewater discharges, it may be more difficult to find common ground over the solid waste permits.

At both the Possums Point and Bremo power stations, Dominion will consolidate the de-watered coal ash from multiple ponds into one location, and then cap the ponds to prevent rainwater from infiltrating the ash and picking up heavy metals. Environmentalists would prefer Dominion to move the coal ash to landfills with impermeable liners to prevent heavy metals from leaching into the groundwater.

Environmental groups object to Dominion’s decision to “leave the coal ash in pits along the banks of the Potomac River … even as utilities in North and South Carolina commit to removing coal ash to safer dry, lined landfills away from waterways.” Potomac Riverkeeper Network worries that the lagoons will continue “leaking toxins into the groundwater and public waterways” as they have “for more than 30 years.” Capping does not solve the groundwater problem,” says Buppert, the SELC attorney. “A cap won’t stop contaminants from getting into the groundwater.”

Power companies have been accumulating coal ash in some locations for 40 or more years. Back then, the material was thought to be harmless. “It was referred to as ‘black sand,'” says Buppert. We know better now, he adds. Caps cannot stop groundwater from migrating laterally through the coal ponds located below the water table near rivers and wetlands. “In every site we’ve looked at, there have been dissolved constituents in the water.” The problem has been particularly evident in Possums Point.

“Our experts say there is an inexhaustible supply of contaminants in the coal ash,” says Buppert. SELC’s goal is to “remove the ash as a continuing source of contamination.”

In North Carolina and South Carolina, power companies are digging up their coal ash and moving it to landfills, says Buppert. Santee Cooper, the South Carolina power company, is paying $220 million to move eleven million tons of coal ash. Dominion should be required to do the same.

Dominion has considered the recycling and landfill alternatives but found them impractical and far more expensive.

Dominion recycled a portion of its fly ash (coal ash recaptured from smokestacks) at its Chesapeake plant in an agreement with Florida-based Progress Materials Inc., which set up a facility next door and in turn sold the residue to a third party as a raw material for concrete. The facility allowed Dominion to avoid the expense and environmental risk of burying the fly in an industrial-grade landfill.

But the economic conditions that existed in Chesapeake before Dominion decommissioned the coal-fired power plant do not exist in either Bremo or Possum Point. The Chesapeake plant was located in a major metropolitan area where there was a ready market for the concrete. Bremo and Possum Point are remote from concrete manufacturers, so there is no ready market for the coal ash, says Williams, Dominion’s environmental manager. “Recycling is not feasible for our ponds.”

The company also examined alternatives for trucking the coal ash to landfills. There is not enough landfill capacity within an economically feasible distance to handle the multimillion-ton volumes. “The economics [of Chesapeake] are not transferable to Bremo or Possum Point,” says Dominion spokesman Dan Genest. “If it were doable, we’d certainly be doing it.”

Moreover, Dominion would likely encounter neighborhood resistance to any proposal to truck the ash to a landfill. The landfilling approach would entail an estimated 1.6 million truck trips. That would translate into 120 truck trips per day for Possum Point past residential neighborhoods on local roads not designed for such heavy traffic. Says Genest: “[Prince William] County doesn’t want to see us truck 120 trucks a day.”

The company looked into the alternative of moving the coal ash by rail, but that was even more expensive, Williams says.

As for the threat of groundwater contamination, Dominion responds that EPA regulations recognize “cap and close” as a legitimate way to handle coal ash ponds going forward, says Genest. The regs require extensive groundwater monitoring. If tests show increased level of pollutants, then Dominion can take corrective action. Among the possible remedies, he said, the company could build a trench to intercept the groundwater and direct it to a facility that will treat it. The EPA cap-in-place method, originally designed for unlined landfills, has been used effectively for more than 20 years. “We’re not proposing something new that hasn’t been done before.”

As Strict as North Carolina?

The protagonists in Virginia’s coal ash debate frequently point to the permit that North Carolina regulators granted Duke Energy for wastewater disposal at its Sutton, N.C. facility. As Dominion points out, DEQ’s permits set stricter standards for cadmium, lead and selenium for both maximum and average daily discharges. It also requires more frequent monitoring of discharges and reporting to regulatory authorities. (See Dominion’s comparison of the two permits.)

“We have stricter monitoring requirements,” says Jason Williams, a Dominion environmental manager. “Their’s are once a week; ours are three times a week. They do grab samples; we’re required to do four-hour composites – not just a snapshot. We also monitor for things they don’t. … Our permit is far more stringent.”

But SELC counters that North Carolina’s limits for arsenic and mercury are up to ten times tighter — far in excess of the legal limits. As for the testing regimen, the group says, North Carolina’s is clearly deficient.

“The human health standard for arsenic in raw drinking water supplies is 10 micrograms per liter,” says Brad McLane, the SELC attorney who contested the Bremo permit. “If it’s a fresh water stream, the criteria for aquatic life is 150 [micrograms per liter, or parts per billion]. Above that, fish, mussels and insects will be poisoned.” DEQ’s average discharge limit in the revised draft permit at Bremo was 290 parts per billion, compared to the maximum limit of 530. Under the settlement, McLane explains, arsenic should never go above 100 ppb, and the level will generally be closer to 25 ppb.

DEQ defends its permitting process. There is no one-size-fits-all standard for all rivers and streams. The heavy metals limits for discharge at one location will very from those for a different location because the receiving waters differ in their chemical composition. Perhaps the most critical variable is what DEQ refers to as the “hardness” of river water, a measure of its ability to chemically bind with heavy metals so as to prevent them from becoming “bio-available” to fish and other organisms. Hardness is determined mainly by the presence of calcium carbonate.

Hardness levels tend to be high in waters west of the Blue Ridge, where limestone is omnipresent, says Allen Brockenbrough, DEQ manager of utility and industrial wastewater permits, and heavy metals are rarely an issue. Hardness levels tend to diminish east of the Blue Ridge, where heavy metals are more of a concern. But the presence of calcium carbonate still varies, and so does the ability of rivers and streams to accommodate the introduction of metals into the water.

Other variables include the volume of stream/river flow, the variability of the flow, temperature, pH, the presence of aquatic life, including delicate early life-stage organisms, and, of course, the volume and content of the discharge waters.

What matters is not the absolute number of, say, mercury or arsenic atoms in the water but whether or not they are bio-available — dissolved in the water in such a way as to be easily absorbed into the food chain or bound up with other compounds so as to be inert.

Moreover, heavy metals that can be toxic at higher concentrations can be benign at lower concentrations, says John Craynon, director-environmental programs for the Virginia Center for Coal and Energy Research at Virginia Tech. “There are trace amounts of metals in the rivers because water runs over rock. Iron, aluminum, manganese are fairly common. … Very different kinds of ecosystems have evolved in those places based on the level of chemistry and dissolved oxygen. The idea behind the water standards is to preserve those ecosystems.”

Comparing the heavy metal limits in a Virginia permit to those of a North Carolina permit can be meaningless without knowing the quality of the receiving water, says Craynon. “If cadmium is fairly common naturally, the organisms living in that stream are probably cadmium tolerant. … A general rule is that a permittee is not required to clean up a constituent below background levels. If they didn’t put it there, why should they remove it?”

SELC retorts that arsenic is a known carcinogen and that there is no known “safe” level. While the toxicity of some metals depends on hardness, that does not apply to arsenic.

Where to from here?

One major source of uncertainty could be cleared up fairly quickly. SELC argues that Dominion and other utilities are required under the Clean Water Act to apply “best available technology”; DEQ says that provision does not apply to wastewater discharge. That appeal, filed in the City of Richmond Circuit Court late February, should be heard soon. If the court upholds DEQ, wastewater disposal issues should be resolved. If not, DEQ will have to go back to the drawing board.

The other big disagreement, over the solid waste permits for capping the coal ponds, will bubble to the surface in coming months when DEQ submits the permits to the State Water Control Board for approval. There doesn’t seem to be much room for compromise. Dominion says that monitoring will spot any degradation to groundwater and allow amelioration. Environmentalists say the groundwater around Bremo is contaminated and not being effectively treated. One side will win, the other will lose. The loser will appeal the ruling, and it could be months more before the issue is resolved.

There are currently no comments highlighted.