More Questions than Answers on Coal-Ash Waste Water Discharges

James River near Dominion's Bremo power plant. Photo credit: WTVR.

James River near Dominion’s Bremo power plant. Photo credit: WTVR.

by James A. Bacon

A crowd estimated at 2oo strong by the Richmond Times-Dispatch (and 700 by the protesters themselves) gathered at the state Capitol grounds Saturday to denounce the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) for granting Dominion Virginia Power permits to discharge treated coal-ash waste water into Quantico Creek and the James River.

Chanting “Coal ash kills. No dumping, no spills,” protesters demanded to see Governor Terry McAuliffe. Police arrested nine after they ignored the restrictions regarding where and when they could gather in Capitol Square.

“Dominion now has a proven track record for negligence and misrepresenting their actions to both state and federal agencies,” said Tatiane Pena of No ACP in a press release issued after the event. “Their promises to the public are worthless. It is the job of the Department of Environmental Quality to ensure that our waterways and communities are protected, and the current permits contain zero mechanism for enforcement. Nor do they require Dominion [to] treat the wastewater to the highest standard possible.”

Organized by No ACP, Collective X and Richmond Resistance, the protest represents the left wing of the environmental movement. The mainstream Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), which has appealed the permits, has been much more restrained in its rhetoric.

Let’s set aside for a moment the inflammatory tone of the protesters’ sloganeering. (Dominion’s coal ash, which will be consolidated in capped ponds and drained of water, will not “kill” anyone. The treated waste water when released, not “dumped” or “spilled,” into the river, might kill aquatic life under extreme low-water conditions within a narrow plume downstream.)

Instead, let’s look instead at the idea that Dominion should treat the coal-ash waste water to “drinking water” standards. That doesn’t sound on its face to be unreasonable. Nobody wants big industry putting dirty water into our rivers and streams, especially not if they’re laden with heavy metals like mercury and arsenic that can be toxic to humans and aquatic life at sufficiently high concentrations. But are “drinking water” standards really what’s required to keep our rivers and streams safe, or would that level of stringency be overkill?

Sadly, despite considerable attention given to the coal-ash issue across the state (including one of my own articles in this blog), I have seen nothing that explains what’s safe and what’s not. For the most part, all that gets replicated is sound-bite claims and counter-claims. In my article, “How Clean Is Clean Enough,” I went into greater depth than anyone else on exactly how Dominion proposes to treat the coal ash waste water and why the SELC argues that treatment is deficient. But even I neglected to inform readers what concentration of various chemicals and compounds is considered safe for humans and aquatic wildlife, and by whom. Presumably, environmentalists, industry groups, the EPA and DEQ all have different ideas of what constitutes safe levels. How far apart are they? Have we moved 99 yards down the field and we’re battling over that last yard, or are we butting heads at the 50-yard line with a long way to go?

And a related set of questions: How much would it cost to meet stricter standards? Are we talking millions of dollars? Tens of millions? Or hundreds of millions? What are the trade-offs in terms of costs and benefits?

I put in queries to Dominion, DEQ and SELC for their input but did not get responses in time for this blog post. I’ll get back to readers when I find out more.

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29 responses to “More Questions than Answers on Coal-Ash Waste Water Discharges

  1. We’re SHOCKED that we don’t know if the material is toxic or harmful or not?

    Jim sez: ” I have seen nothing that explains what’s safe and what’s not.”

    😉 the GOP has an “APP” for that… :

    ” Environmental regulations and the E.P.A. have been the bane of Tea Party Republicans almost from the start. Although particularly outraged by efforts to monitor carbon dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas linked to the warming of the Earth’s atmosphere, freshmen Republicans have tried to rein in the E.P.A. across the board — including proposals to take away its ability to decide if coal ash can be designated as a toxic material and to prevent it from clarifying rules enforcing the Clean Water Act.”

    The appropriations bill in question covers the Department of Interior, the Forest Service and the E.P.A., and it was voted out of committee and onto the House floor strictly along party lines — with the Republicans prevailing 28 to 18. The bill cuts annual combined funding for agencies by 7 percent — and by nearly 18 percent for the E.P.A. alone — but it is controversial mostly because of the onslaught of policy changes.
    Representative Norm Dicks, Democrat of Washington and ranking minority member on the appropriations committee, said Republicans were adding provisions unchecked to the law and getting away with very little scrutiny. He expected even more regulatory rollbacks to be added to the bill this week. The bill is under open debate on the House floor, and policy changes requested by members but not included by the appropriations committee can now be added one by one to the bill, in addition to the 39 riders that came out of the committee.”

    from NYT – ” Republicans Seek Big Cuts in Environmental Rules
    JULY 27, 2011″

    Oh – and don’t forget this:

    ” Political Pollutant
    Part payback, part witch hunt, Ken Cuccinelli’s University of Virginia probe could have a chilling effect on higher education.

    the GOP solution to pollution is basically to de-fund the research..

    and then that leads to this: ” I have seen nothing that explains what’s safe and what’s not.”

  2. Let me rephrase…. I have seen nothing in the media coverage that explains what’s safe and what’s not.

    • that’s EVEN WORSE! if the EPA does not have the funding to study it what does the Media have to report?

      jezzzeeeee … talk about beating around the bush….

      what’s with you Conservatives anyhow?

  3. Oh – and let me add – when the right says the Dems have moved to the left – this is one of those areas… Obama’s “war on coal”… etc, etc,

    and our friends on the right who claim they are for “reasonable” regulation – not a peep .. crickets.. or they join in the anti-regulation pile-ons…

    can’t have it both ways…

    so Jim SHOULD ACKNOWLEDGE – WHY we do not know about coal ash..

    why do we not know about Coal Ash – Jim?

    • Larry, have you been hitting the sauce this afternoon?

      Why do we not know about coal ash? What kind of question is that? I’m sure there are answers to the questions I’m asking but I haven’t been able to find them yet. I’ve put out phone calls and emails and hope to find something that makes sense. What on earth does this have to do with Democrats, Republicans and anti-regulation pile-ons?

      • Jim – how would we KNOW about coal ash if we do not FUND research?

        do YOU have to HIT the sauce to see this?


        how do you expect to FIND anything about it – if the funding to study it was taken away?

        come on guy… WHO are you CALLING? the GOP? ALEC?


        oh wait – How about the Clean Coal folks? Surely they have a study.


    • Buffalo Creek triggered the first wave of regulation, which served to protect against huge ash-slurry ponds from breaking and inundating people downstream. That was mostly successful, but it didn’t address all the problems relating to coal ash ponds. The TVA incident spurred another round of much tighter regulations, which is what we’re dealing with now.

  4. I have only glanced at this article so make no opinion on it in particular.

    However, I have noted quite recently a massive rewriting of much so called “history” lately on Wikipedia that is obviously and blatantly driven by someone’s ideology. Using this previously impartial reference source increasingly as a propaganda tool to promote some special agenda is a great tragedy.

  5. This is really not a partisan issue. Could be a bad example of the “Virginia way” though. WaPo has had several good articles.

    The most amazing thing to me is that the repub admin. of Maryland’s Gov. Hogan has come out against the plan, suggesting the Dominion proposal and permit granted by Virginia may deserve a closer look.

    • Hogan’s move is a big deal.

    • It _ought not_ BE a partisan issue – agree – so why is it?

      In our own state – we have the Farm Bureau arguing against the toxics-regulating TMDLs with the other usual cast of Conservative characters egging them on… and not a word from the Va GA in support of the TMDL regulation.

      It’s NOT that they simply OPPOSE – it’s that they are opposing to repeal as opposed to advocating changes and reforms to it – they’re opposing it essentially on a State’s Rights basis – and the right’s objection to the EPA and it’s role in general.

      ” WASHINGTON—In its ongoing battle against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Total Maximum Daily Load, or TMDL, regulations for the Chesapeake Bay watershed, the American Farm Bureau Federation argued last week that the EPA is violating the Clean Water Act.

      Attorneys for the AFBF delivered legal arguments stating that states in the bay watershed, not the federal government, are authorized by law to decide how best to achieve water quality goals.”

      so , not surprising that the folks suing the TMDLs are not among those concerned about the coal ash…

      Leave aside for a minute the idea that states would actually come up with a common TMDL standard that actually did apply uniformly to watersheds that crossed state boundaries..

      consider exactly what Virginia itself has done on it’s own for Environmental Protection over the years when it COULD have come up with it’s own Chesapeake Bay program which the EPA – DOES allow. The EPA invariably allows the states to “go first” or have the EPA do the role.

      The Federal law just requires that the role be done –

      On the coal ash opponents, Jim reacts to what he says is the “inflammatory tone” of the “left wing of the environmental movement” – which is sort of an oxymoron in BR because Jim typically characterizes most green groups as “left” …

      credit for referring THIS TIME to the SELC as “mainstream”.


      long story short – there is no denying that environmental protection in Virginia generally and in BR is more typically represented as “left” and the EPA depicted as an “out of control” agency that should be done away with… nevermind – there is no real proposal for Virginia to take over what they do – FOR INSTANCE – on COAL ASH – CLEARLY people do not TRUST Virginia to do that job and instead pretty much believe that Dominion is the one in charge….

      Virginia has a LONG history of allowing toxics to get into rivers – from Kepone in the James to PCBs the Shenandoah to Titanium leachate in the Piney and Tye Rivers , etc… In short, Virginia does not protect it’s rivers until and unless there is strong and undeniable opposition – at which point – they often get characterized as “left” – cue the CPP.

  6. Thanks – look forward to it. As with many issues (not just environmental) most of us want good solutions, but are unable to decipher all the different sets of “facts” advanced by so many interest groups.

  7. Larry sees environmental politics in the coal ash decision, and you, Jim, say, “What on earth does this have to do with Democrats, Republicans and anti-regulation pile-ons?”
    Well, for starters, there is a know-nothing crowd in Congress that’s strongly associated with the right end of the spectrum, with some support from the left end too. Someday, look into who killed the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), Congress’ very effective tool for getting real answers to questions like “what is the safety and economic impact of a certain water regulation?” There are plenty of politicians who would prefer to make speeches about how terrible a situation is, than to know for sure it isn’t all that terrible; or, it is terrible but also know the exact dimensions of the problem and what could be done about it.

    Beyond the know-nothing crowd, there’s the sky-is-falling crowd, people that never came across an environmental abuse that couldn’t be exaggerated for political effect. They are strongly associated with the left end of the spectrum and with the younger generation, sure. They are angry and sometimes irrational in their knee-jerk hostility to balancing the economic tradeoffs; but they often tap into the slow burn of the rest of us who see relatively minor environmental abuses ignored or willfully swept under the rug. Our beautiful Virginia countryside can only withstand so many minor assaults, so many little abuses here and there, before it degrades across the board. How many pipelines, how many transmission lines across the River, how many coal ash discharges, before enough is enough?

    The same with Maryland. The Potomac is Maryland’s southern waterway; why shouldn’t Governor Hogan be concerned? I suppose a more cynical view is that here’s an issue that can only help him politically, why not jump on board? But why shouldn’t Virginia set a GOOD example when it comes to comparisons between Virginia and Maryland treatment of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries?

  8. “Instead, let’s look instead at the idea that Dominion should treat the coal-ash waste water to “drinking water” standards. That doesn’t sound on its face to be unreasonable. Nobody wants big industry putting dirty water into our rivers and streams, especially not if they’re laden with heavy metals like mercury and arsenic that can be toxic to humans and aquatic life at sufficiently high concentrations. But are “drinking water” standards really what’s required to keep our rivers and streams safe, or would that level of stringency be overkill?”

    I don’t want DVP to be relieved of any or all reasonable treatment standards, but I would simply note that the water that’s now IN the James River is not at “drinking water” standard. For instance, I don’t think DVP needs to chlorinate that treated water before putting it into the James or the Potomac.

    Also, it may be a big environmental deal that Maryland is weighing in or it may just be the Old Line state asserting its property interests in the Potomac, which it owns all the way to the banks on Virginia’s side.

  9. most of us don’t want “pristine”.. we totally understand and support … science-based decision-making.

    So I totally support the NPDES … approach to controlling discharges and I’ve seen many a putrid discharge pipe in my years of paddling.

    I support TMDLs and understand the dilemma of trying to fairly allocate who has to restrict and how much and I’m especially supportive of the farming community who rightly wants actual water testing vice modelling – but I have no tolerance for the folks who just want it all to go away, engage in conspiracy theories, blame games and partisan politics as a way to evade doing anything at all.

    and you cannot in the same breath honestly – want to know why we don’t have fact-based information about coal ash – at the same time you KNOW the GOP and like-minded on the right has methodically de-funded most all efforts to characterize it at both the Federal and State levels while demonizing the EPA, denial of science in general with zero alternatives other than “burn it down and walk away” ignorance and idiocy.

    The “who me” approach to talking about it – is less than wonderful.

  10. Here is a website with a pretty good map showing locations in Virginia. The two main issues are (1) dam hazard rating and (2) enviro. contaminants. For the Virginia sites in question, the (2) enviro. contaminants seem to be the main issue. Talk about job creation, taking care of these sites on the map could be a lifetime project for lots of folks. I am serious.

  11. Jim,
    I haven’t been hitting the sauce this afternoon but after reading your blog posting, I will be.

    Seriously, I am not sure that Buffalo Creek is relevant here. That 1972 event in West Virginia killed 125 people who were swept away and drowned in a tidal wave of coal mine sludge. A couple of Pittston dams breached in extra heavy rain. What caused the dams to break was that lightly regulated strip mining took away natural vegetation and earthen cover. The valleys were very steep. The disaster prompted strip mine regulation reform. Strip mines were then required to be returned to their natural; contour under federal law. The same fossil fuel crowd bitched and moaned as they are doing now. But the disaster had nothing to do with utility coal ash ponds.

      • Whether or not it is ash or sludge, pollution is an issue. I know its not a dam breaking but we have enough companies who don’t care about people to mess up the environment to whatever is cheapest for them. That’s really why you see people out. They’re getting fed up with getting crapped on by big companies making a buck on people’s lives.

        Whether it is a dam breaking or the water getting polluted, we are paying with our lives. Just like it was with the robber baron days of yore.

        • excellent commentary and interested in hearing Jim’s response.

          and the thing is – what keeps those folks that V_R so well characterizes – in business and able to fend off regulation and enforcement?

          AH – the $64 question and ALEC has your answer!

          It’s quite simple – you do NOT let the govt do the studies and science to find out if it is harmful or not…to begin with.

          no definitive data? no problem! end of problem!

          ” House Committee votes to bar regulation as hazardous waste
          A House committee approved legislation on July 13, 2011 that would bar federal regulation of coal ash as hazardous waste. The bill, passed 35-12 by the Energy and Commerce Committee, now moves to the House floor, where a Republican majority is expected to pass it. Six Democrats joined the committee’s Republicans in voting for the bill.[62]”

          Oh and how best to not have the risk of someone actually successfully convincing the “govt” do that study despite the best efforts of industry-paid elected to stop it?

          Kill the EPA all together so that there will be NO govt agency to do it anyhow!

          Think I’m kidding – listen to the GOP candidates for POTUS..

          Now Jim’s “approach” seems to be to blame the media for “not reporting” anything about coal ash studies..unless of course an industry-funded one exists – not exactly a novel approach – either ….


          I will very charitably chalk this up to Jim’s naivety about such matters.. as opposed to his earnest Conservatism…. at least until he stumbles back to talking about massive global scientific conspiracy theories…

  12. And Jim,

    Before I crack open the Maker’s and share it with Larry, you ought to know something technical, Genius Boy.

    Coal ASH is what happens when you burn coal.

    Coal SLUDGE is the gunk they take out of deep coal mines so that people and equipment can get in.

    Buffalo Creek was the latter.

    Big difference.

  13. Here’s a cool slide show by Scott Elmquist of Style Weekly:

  14. re: cleanup jobs for life -… there you go … coal creates jobs!!!

    Hey Peter!!!!

  15. speaking of media reports on toxic waste – interesting article:

    “Meet the ‘rented white coats’ who defend toxic chemicals
    How corporate-funded research is corrupting America’s courts and regulatory agencies”

    ” About ‘Science for Sale’
    Science and opinion have become increasingly conflated, in large part because of corporate influence. As we explain in “Science for Sale,” an investigative series by the Center for Public Integrity and co-published with, industry-backed research has exploded — often with the aim of obscuring the truth — as government-funded science dwindles. ”

    very disturbing article if true…

  16. another interesting and thought provoking article:

    ” Johnson & Johnson to pay $72 million in case linking baby powder to ovarian cancer”

    Now the interesting part is that the govt never said that talc was “safe” or “acceptably safe at some specific concentration or application” but Johnson and Johnson said it was – even though “science” said if the talc had asbestos in it… it might be carcinogenic. This was that nasty old world-wide peer-reviewed science that did that deed…

    and the jury … well the Jury believed it and since rule of law is still thus far sacrosanct and a true hallmark of rule of law and civilized countries – and all that rot – voila! – there’s a whole lotta financial hurt at J&J this week.. and the stockholders will no doubt be not happy.

    Now – the other aspect to this is for those things where the govt “regulators” …. “officially” sign off on the “acceptable” use of something – it’s GOLDEN for the companies. It’s their de-facto “get out of jail free” card!

    So the ROLE of the govt in regulation is desirable – even profitable – if those companies can figure out how to keep those pesky regulators under control and NOT go “rogue” on them… if you know what I mean!

    So from that point of view – the rabid right – who wants to shutter the regulatory agencies all together – industry KNOWs they HAVE lost ther collective minds – which has to be some sort of oxymoron if there ever was one…

    just saying…

  17. I went back to re-read Peter’s orig article, and Jim’s first article.

    Sen. Scott Surovell commented on Peter’s article. Scott was pushing for removal of the coal ash after dewatering and placing in lined landfills. NC has done this in one case. At that time, Sen. Surovell did not seem to voice a concern about water treatment and disposal.

    As far as the water treatment, Jim has described a proposed process of pH adjustment, aeration, flocculation, and filtration. These are really simple basic steps, and might be considered more pre-treatment than a targeted aggressive bio-treatment to remove a particular contaminant.

    Peter has mentioned that selenium is a possible contaminant. My understanding selenium is problematic for wildlife in water. So that is one contaminant (if present) that could be a key treatment parameter.

    Overall we would need lots of data to understand the best approaches. Is the impoundment water fairly clean? Just rainwater now, with most of the soluble contaminants washed into subsurface groundwater years ago? Or is the water still loaded with whatever washes off of coal ash? Is the bigger risk to nature the ash/water itself, or the groundwater beneath the impoundments where the contaminants may be now, on their way to the river? Or did most of the contaminants already flush away years ago?

    Presumably we learn more in the permit appeal hearings.

  18. It still boils down to if and how the science is done so that we do have more information upon which to make “informative” decisions and you cannot do that if the folks who fund the science and write regulations and laws enforcing them – back out of doing that.

    at that point – where are you going to find knowledge and how are you actually going to regulate if the laws are are not there and the regulators hobbled?

    we can’t seem to understand how this process has to work and the silly think is we continue to talk about “finding” the data.. .and blaming the media for not reporting.

    I’m totally flummoxed by the “logic”.

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