Drinkable Water for Humans — or Fish?

James River carp do just fine in water that don't meet drinking water standards.

James River carp do just fine in water that doesn’t meet human drinking water standards.

by James A. Bacon

State regulators have taken heat recently for permits they issued Dominion Virginia Power to release treated wastewater from coal-ash ponds into the James River and Quantico Creek. The controversy has played out in the news as the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) filed an appeal to contest the permit and as protesters organized by No ACP rallied at Capitol Square to protest the “dumping” of “toxic” water into Virginia rivers.

SELC and No ACP are very different organizations, and they are demanding very different things. The main concern of the SELC, a mainstream environmental organization, is to ensure that treated wastewater released into Virginia waters meets the “fishable/swimmable” standard that protects aquatic life. The protesters, organized by local activist groups No ACP, Collective X and Richmond Resistance, want to hold Dominion and other utilities to a far stricter — and, arguably, entirely inappropriate — “drinkable” standard.

It’s easy for the public to conflate the two as part of a general critique of big utilities and  compliant regulators allowing the dumping of toxic pollution into Virginia waters. But that would be a huge mistake. Agree or disagree with their legal case, the SELC attorneys understand the issues at stake. By contrast, the activists’ mastery of the subject matter does not appear to exceed what they can write on placards and chant in slogans.

I will deal with the activists’ argument in this post so I can delve more deeply into the SELC case against the wastewater permits later.

According to the No ACP press release, the protesters’ demands are simple — “an immediate repeal of recent permits that would allow Dominion Power to dump millions of gallons of toxic coal ash wastewater into Virginia’s most treasured waterways.”

What standards should Dominion meet? “DEQ must rewrite these permits to require the use of best available technology and that the water be treated to undetectable levels of arsenic and other toxins before disposal,” states the press release. Speaking to the Times-Dispatch, protest organizer Tatiane McCormick made much the same point: The permits should be rewritten to require Dominion to discharge water into the rivers only if it meets (to use the T-D‘s words) “drinking water standards.” (No ACP did not respond to a Bacon’s Rebellion request for an interview.)

A  refresher: Coal ash is the residue from the combustion of coal. Dominion, Appalachian Power Co. and large industrial companies have been impounding the material, which contains heavy metals such as arsenic, mercury, and cadmium, in large containment ponds for many years. Because the metals are typically chemically bound with clays and glasses, not free-floating, they are largely inert, which is why the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does not classify coal ash as a hazardous waste.

Dominion, the first company in Virginia to respond to the new standards, plans to drain the water from the ponds and then cap them in order to prevent rainwater from percolating through. Dominion will treat the water in a multi-staged clean-up process before releasing it into the river. The DEQ permit allows the water to exceed safe levels at the point of entry into the river, relying upon dilution with river water to keep it within prescribed limits.

The state has two types of regulatory standards: one for drinking water, and one for fishable/swimmable water. Power plants and manufacturers are required to meet the fishable/swimmable standard for any effluent they release into rivers and streams. Under the U.S. regulatory regime, it is up to municipal water treatment plants, not power plants and manufacturers, to bring river water up to the drinking water standard, and they have invested billions of dollars in treatment facilities to do so.

Under its permit, Dominion will release a maximum of 1,500 gallons per minute of treated wastewater into the river, says Jason Williams, an environmental manager for the utility. River flow varies depending upon weather conditions, but on the day Williams spoke to Bacon’s Rebellion, it was running about 13.7 million gallons per minute. “If you treated the [coal ash] wastewater to drinking water quality,” says Williams, “it would immediately be rendered undrinkable by mixing with the river water.”

John R. Craynon, who manages the Appalachian Research Initiative for Environmental Science (ARIES) at Virginia Tech, makes the same point. (ARIES is funded by the coal industry but the industry has no say in the selection of research projects, says Craynon.) Treating wastewater to a drinking water standard would be very expensive and a waste of effort, he says. “The moment the drinking water hits the stream, it’s no longer of the same quality.”

Bottom line: Compelling Dominion and other utilities to treat coal ash wastewater to drinking water standards would accomplish nothing. It would not render the river water safe for human consumption. The real question is whether Dominion’s permit will enable it to meet the swimmable/fishable standards that protect aquatic life. The SELC would like the permit to tighten the restrictions on mercury and arsenic. We will examine that issue in a subsequent post.

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26 responses to “Drinkable Water for Humans — or Fish?

  1. Wouldn’t it be nice if the environmental whack-doodles like No ACP could make a reasoned argument in response? Oh, well. I guess that’s why they didn’t respond to Jim’s request for comment.

    • Depressed, anxious, inadequate people typically lash out by throwing away and wasting money, their own and other peoples. Relief from their own anxious state comes from the act of doing something however irresponsible.

      Hence Emelda Marcos and her 1000 red shoes. Hence our President’s throwing away nearly a trillion dollars of other people’s money to stipulate nothing but his own pleasure and gratification at having the power to do so.

      That’s what this latest absurdity of vulgar wastage comes from.

  2. I’m not seeing where they explicitly are advocating for drinking water standards…

  3. Unfortunately my limited life experience in Virginia teaches me that sometimes Virginia gov’t bodies are not as good stewards of the environmental as they should be. That predisposes me to think that there could be merit in appealing the discharge permit as approved. If upon further analysis I am proven wrong, I will be the first to admit it. I am also frustrated with Virginia environmental group extremism, but let’s figure out what makes sense.

    Obviously Maryland DEP has offered to assess what makes sense from their view, and I am all “ears”. If MD DEP turns out to be simple extremists, I will be disappointed.

    • something else I do not understand –

      “Because the metals are typically chemically bound with clays and glasses, not free-floating, they are largely inert, which is why the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does not classify coal ash as a hazardous waste.”

      is this true? is this why the EPA does not classify – because if the metals are actually bound why don’t the precipitate out in the ponds or in the treatment? If they are water soluble it appears that they do get back into the environment – and at the very least get into the sediment and at the worst “bleed”.

      I don’t think No ACP was explicitly advocating drinking water standards – if they actually were – they’re wrong, I agree.

      I think what they’re saying is that the water has toxic chemicals in it and here’s my bottom line.

      If that was a manufacturing plant – could it get a NPDES permit for the toxics in the effluent or is a loophole in the law being exploited?

      Sometimes Jim seems to go out of his way to react to a small group and ignore the more substantiative issue which is what SELC is about – and you don’t need to wait to include SELCs concerns at this point either.

      this focus on the smaller, more radical groups is becoming a standard feature of the right… these days IMHO and is also seen in racial issues.

      also ask who ACP is and what their name is ACP? what caused them to form in the first place?

      • “This focus on the smaller, more radical groups is becoming a standard feature of the right…” Yeah, kind of like the media firestorm over Donald Trump’s refusal (and he’s the *last* guy in the world I want to defend) to disavow David Duke and the KKK. Seems to be a standard feature of the left. When was the last time Bernie Sanders was asked to disavow himself of some left-wing idiot who spouted off?

        Actually, the point of focusing on this particular group is that (a) it staged a large protest and got lots of press attention, and (b) it is making more strident demands than the Southern Environmental Law Center. I wanted to clear the deck. so to speak, for a much more in-depth look into the issues raised by the SELC appeal.

        • why focus to start with on the small group if you really want to find common ground?

          all you accomplish is to widen the wedge when you do that – you divert attention away from the substantiative issue and reasonable dialogue and compromise approaches.

          your “clearing the deck” basically is to stir up things for no good reason …

        • re: ” “This focus on the smaller, more radical groups is becoming a standard feature of the right…” Yeah, kind of like the media firestorm over Donald Trump’s …”

          geeze Jim – FOX …AND the other GOP candidates AND the GOP Senators made comments… that’s not just “media”, right?

      • The way EPA works, is that many things are considered non-hazardous unless it comes to EPA’s attention that the waste is being mismanaged. In the case of coal ash, I believe over the years EPA/Congress erred on the side of letting utilities “off the hook”. Many recent incidents have finally forced the EPA to write better rules for coal ash management. In short, I don’t believe absence of toxic soluble metals is the reason why coal ash was considered non-hazardous. IN this case, we have that the coal ash is mixed with water prior to disposal, so it seems to me the dewatered coal ash may be relatively inert. But that requires analysis to verify.

        As I understand it, Dominion is trying to fix the problem before the EPA’s new coal ash rules go into effect. Here is the new regulation:
        https://www.epa.gov/coalash/frequent-questions-about-coal-ash-disposal-rule#3

  4. If Jim had gone to the rally as I did, he might realize that No ACP does not speak for all the protestors. There were a bunch more groups.

    And, for a “non-sponsored” look at the same issue, here’s a piece Style photographer Scott Elmquist and I did this week:

    http://www.styleweekly.com/richmond/qanda-what-you-need-to-know-about-dominions-wastewater-plans-for-the-james-river/Content?oid=2296632

    • Peter, what about this phrase — “the protesters, organized by local activist groups No ACP, Collective X and Richmond Resistance” — implies that No ACP speaks for all protestors?

      I quote No ACP because I could find no content on the Collective X Facebook page, and I could find no Facebook page or website for Richmond Resistance.

  5. Try the Chesapeake Climate Action Network and a host of others. You seem to be setting up straw men here, Jim.
    Peter

    • The Chesapeake Climate Action Network didn’t get loads of uncritical ink and press coverage from a recent rally — No ACP and its allies did.

      As I said in repeatedly in the blog post and in these comments, SELC has raised much more substantive issues, which I will get to in a lengthier, deep-dive article in the near future. The point here is to avoid conflating No ACP claims with SELC’s.

  6. Maybe you ought to address what is in the wastewater plume. Go ahead. Take a “deep dive” into it!

  7. Jim veers right these days on the issues.. focuses on the divide – plays the us against them blame game… rather than substantiative policy dialogue.. and is attracting others of similar mindset.. who have no intention of trying to find common ground – just stir up more “anti” talk …

    my view..and I apologize for having to say it.

  8. Larry the G,
    Jim seems to be using a fairly obvious ploy of setting up “good” greenies and “bad” greenies. He might ask why the state of Maryland is going to sue Dominion over Possum Point. I hate to say it, but Bacons Rebellion is losing its integrity.

    • More “Attack the Messenger”. Hey Peter, I thought you swore never to darken Jim’s door again. What happened to that promise?

    • I’ve asked the Maryland Department of Natural Resources to detail the reasons for its appeal of the Possum Point permit. No response yet.

      As for my supposed ploy of setting up “good” greenies and “bad” greenies — which I see as separating responsible criticism from irresponsible criticism — it appears that you see only “good” greenies and “bad” corporations. Who’s losing his integrity?

  9. Peter and Larry should become lawyers. They follow the standard lawyers’ rule: “When you don’t have the merits on your side, argue the procedure”. A corollary in Larry’s case would be “Attack the messenger” as being right wing.
    Larry further engages in the fallacy of speculation, making fact out of speculation by asserting “I think what they are saying is….” instead of looking at what they actually said. Then he attempts to cast doubt on the statement about chemicals being bound up by asking , “Is it true?” and “Can they get a permit”. This substitutes for knowing the facts and stating them.

    Re: exploiting the divide. Gee, Larry, did you get this off the fax from DNC Talking Points HQ? Or did you just watch Hillary’s speech last night. C’mon Larry, you can do better than that.

  10. rather than flatly saying I did not think it was the case – I DID ASK…
    it’s a fair question… and probably one the SELC is also asking.

    and I DID say that I would also disagree with the drinking water claim if they actually did say that… no question – but did they actually say that?

    and yes – if the toxic chemicals ARE bound up in “clay” or other particulates AND did settle out in the pond and/or DID get removed in the treatment process – then YES – I’m fine with that also.

    but again – I wanted to get verification that – that is the case and not what SELC is concerned about.

    and I point out once again – that we could have done this in one post that discussed the merits -of the issue and .. perhaps compare and contrast SELCs position with these No ACP folks.

    I did not attack the messenger at all – I asked why we needed to be attacking the No ACP folks in the first place because in terms of groups – there are not the SELC folks.

    and – yes I’m going to keep calling Jim when he veers right … count on it.

    was not THAT long ago when you could COUNT on Jim taking a balanced and measured approach without partisan stuff and I do miss it.

    • I guess it depends what you call partisan (See my post on Peter’s use of “divide” talking points from Hilary’s speech last night). Generally speaking, facts are facts, unless they have been distorted or they emanate from questionable assumptions (See, e.g. computer models used to support the notion of man made climate change). When facts lead to conclusions you don’t like, then there is the tendency to call that “partisan”. Climate change “deniers” are regularly accused in this regard. Thus, “Inconvenient Truths” that don’t turn out to be such truths. So, also, emails that reveal Obamacare not based on the “truths” previously claimed (should I say intentional lies?). So when Jim makes an argument based on certain facts, you and Peter don’t come up with contrary facts with sources; you attack Jim. You say he’s veering right. I only wish he were as “right” as you claim.

  11. Lots of legitimate issues here.

    First, Peter – great article.

    Questions for Dominion:

    1. The ponds can be drained or sealed. Why not seal them all?

    2. It’s too expensive to transport the coal ash to landfills by truck or rail. However, it wasn’t too expensive to move the coal itself to the power plants by rail or truck. Really?

    3. There are two standards – “fishable / swimmable” and “drinkable”. Dominion intends to use neither. They will dump coal ash into rivers and creeks with the hope that it will dilute to “fishable / swimmable” over some period of time.

    4. Draining the ponds is the first step. coal ash will continue to be produced until the plants are shut down or converted to something other than coal. What happens to the coal ash that continues to be created? How long can that ash be dumped into creeks and rivers until it has some effect?

    5. Dominion can dump up to 1,500 gallons per minute into the James. How much can they dump into the other rivers and creeks and what are the annual high and low water flow rated in those rivers and creeks?

    6. The creek that will be used for the Dumfries dump flows directly into the Potomac which is owned to the Virginia shore by Maryland. However, Maryland should have no say in this matter?

    7. Scott Surrovell proposed a bill to handle this differently. It was defeated. What is the correlation between the GA members voting against that bill and donations from Dominion?

    8. There are lots of coal burning plants in America. They all produce coal ash. What are the practices in other states?

    Jim’s article correctly concluded that “drinkable” was too high a standard. However, it bypassed a lot of other questions on this matter. I give Jim the benefit of the doubt and assume that a short format form like a blog can’t cover everything in depth. I hope to see additional articles where other aspects of this matter are discussed.

    • Thank you for giving me the benefit of the doubt, Don. I will cover many of your questions in a subsequent post.

      However, I can address a couple of questions right now.

      1. The ponds can be drained or sealed. Why not seal them all?

      The ponds are being drained and sealed.

      3. There are two standards – “fishable / swimmable” and “drinkable”. Dominion intends to use neither. They will dump coal ash into rivers and creeks with the hope that it will dilute to “fishable / swimmable” over some period of time.

      Dominion’s DEQ permit follows EPA guidelines for releasing treated wastewater into the river. The wastewater will be diluted to fishable/swimmable standards. The question revolves around how big the “mixing zone” (where the dilution occurs) will be, mainly under extreme drought conditions when the river flow is very low, and what is the likelihood that, even under these conditions, aquatic life will be harmed. (No knowledgeable entity is suggesting that human health will be harmed.) That’s where the real issue is. All the rest is sound and fury signifying nothing.

      4. Draining the ponds is the first step. … How long can that ash be dumped into creeks and rivers until it has some effect?

      No coal ash is being dumped into the rivers. The coal ash is being contained in ponds. Water exposed to the coal ash is being drained from the ponds and treated before being released into the rivers.

      5. Dominion can dump up to 1,500 gallons per minute into the James. How much can they dump into the other rivers and creeks and what are the annual high and low water flow rated in those rivers and creeks?

      I can’t tell you the specifics for each site. Except for Possum Point, they probably haven’t been decided yet. DEQ customizes each permit to the local conditions of each site, including the water flow of the receiving body of water, the chemical content of that body of water, and a variety of other factors. My understanding is that DEQ has a computer model that handles a lot of this work.

      8. There are lots of coal burning plants in America. They all produce coal ash. What are the practices in other states?

      Coal plants in other states have to abide by the same EPA guidelines. Local DEQs likewise tailor the permits to local conditions. Broadly speaking, EPA allows three options: haul away the coal ash and dispose of it in a landfill, recycle the coal cash (typically in cement or concrete), and cap the coal ash after de-watering it first. I have been told all three approaches are used.

  12. Thanks, Don the Ripper.

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