Less Hysteria in the Coal Ash Debate, Please

A Dominion employee holds a container of treated coal-ash wastewater at the company's Bremo facility. The water was treated to be safe for aquatic life, not for people to drink. It would make no sense to do so.

A Dominion employee holds a container of treated coal-ash wastewater at the company’s Bremo facility. The water was treated to be safe for aquatic life, not for people to drink. It would make no sense to do so.

by James A. Bacon

Yeah, I have a problem — a big problem — when people like Marion Kanour, an Episcopal priest from Nelson County and a member of the Knitting Nannas of Virginia, are quoted uncritically in newspaper articles like today’s Richmond Times-Dispatch coverage of an environmental protest.

Referring to treated coal-ash wastewater released into the James River from Dominion Virginia Power’s Bremo Power Station yesterday, Kanour said:

I’m not sure how many parts per million you’re willing to ingest, but I’m not willing to ingest any. I guess it was much less expensive to poison the rest of us.

There are environmentalist professionals who know what they’re talking about, and then there are local activists who don’t. The professionals are careful what they say. The activists spew crazy stuff that clouds the debate. Kanour’s quote is a classic example of crazy stuff.

No one will be “ingesting” wastewater in parts per million or any other detectable level. The discharge will flow into the James River at a maximum rate of 1,500 gallons per minute and mix with a river flow of 5.5 million gallons per minute under normal conditions. The nearest water intake for a municipal treatment facility is 50 miles downstream. Any water taken into the Richmond water treatment plant undergoes an extensive treatment to make it suitable for drinking. A critical step is adding chlorine to kill bacteria. The Bremo wastewater is not treated with chlorine because adding that chemical to the river…. (drum roll)… would be harmful to aquatic organisms.

The kinds of statements Kanour makes have nothing to do with the real debate. The battle line is not over whether to put toxic swill or clean, drinkable water into the river, but over how frequently to test wastewater quality and what protocols to follow to ensure the water meets DEQ standards. The parameters of the dialogue between DEQ, Dominion and environmental groups are extremely narrow. If the Bremo controversy were a football field, the question is whether the football belongs on the 49 yard line or the 47 yard line, not the 10 yard line.

Talk about “poisoning” people with undrinkable water is hysterical nonsense that alarms people unnecessarily and makes it more difficult for the professionals — and by that I include the environmental groups who do know what they’re talking about — to do their jobs.

Update: Bacon eats crow. In the original post, I chastised Marion Kanour for spouting “crazy stuff,” such as saying that heavy metals discharged into the James River would be measured in “parts per million” instead of “parts per billion.” Well, in that instance, I’m the one who spouted crazy stuff, for, in fact, effluent levels are measured in micrograms, which are units equivalent to one-millionth of a liter. So I formally apologize for my rash statement, and I have removed the offending paragraph.

The rest of my criticism stands.

–JAB

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37 responses to “Less Hysteria in the Coal Ash Debate, Please

  1. I thought the progressives (fka liberals) believed in separation of church and state. What is a religious leader sticking her nose in a political issue? Don’t tell me there is a double standard!

    • TMT – do you understand that separation of Church and state is with respect to government – and that means that government functions separate from religion which allows people to engage in any religion they wish including to advocate ?

      geeze guy.. you guys amaze me with your inability to see this …

      it’s no religion in govt guy… it’s total freedom of citizens to engage in or not

      • Larry, have you seen guys and gals on your side (left) arguing that it is inappropriate for people opposed to (fill in the blank – abortion, birth control, gay marriage) for religious reasons to try to become involved in the legislative process? Or that laws should not reflect conservative social or religious views (BTW, I’m pretty moderate on social issues when I even care).

        I agree with your view, but many of your colleagues see it differently.

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  3. a couple of things.

    re: ” (drum roll)… would be harmful to aquatic organisms.”

    Jim – do you think Chlorine is harmful to any/all living organisms including you?

    do you think that chlorine is put into the water you drink?

    do you think it “harms” you the same it would other “aquatic” organisms?

    good lord guy – no wonder you’re confused about whether or not to believe science!

    and so you’re skeptical of climate science but you’re totally are ok with Dominion’s and DEQ’s “science” guys … you actually believe it when they tell you that parts per billion is a “safe” level? why? Do you think these scientists are telling the truth about toxic metals in water while their compatriots are lying about carbon dioxide in the atmosphere?

    geeze guy..

  4. This is usually the time when the mayor, governor, or plant manager steps in to drink a glass of the treated water for the media. But that does not prove anything except someone is willing to try drinking it.

    I did not realize there was drinking water taken downstream. Our Country probably has a lot of soul searching to do on that topic. These days the public has an expectation of zero contaminants, which in the history of mankind we’ve never had, and we probably never will have.

    As always, this gets into human perception of risk, which we are poor at. Our risk perception is impacted by whether or not we accept the risk. If we have voluntary control over it or for some reason $$ support the risk, anything goes. If we feel the risk is forced onto to us unvoluntarily, any perceived risk no matter how small can be a serious outrage.

    • Dominion was asked by the press if they would drink the water. It is my understanding, they were told no, they wouldn’t drink the water because of the chemicals they use to “treat” it.

      • I don’t think your source got it quite right. I was there and heard the question. I recall that Dominion said that they wouldn’t drink the water because it wasn’t treated for bacteria (a non-issue when the water goes into the river). To make it drinkable, they would have to use chlorine to treat it.

        • Perhaps my source was incorrect, Mr. Bacon. The reporter I spoke to was there also. Dominion is using chemicals to treat the coal ash water. That’s a part of the CER too.

          • You heard right. Dominion does use chemicals to agglomerate various constituents in the water so they will settle out — I wasn’t thinking about that when I responded. I don’t suppose anyone would want to drink those chemicals. They are routinely used by municipal waste water treatment plants around the country, however, and there is nothing controversial about them.

  5. Actually the Concept Engineering Report from Dominion for the Bremo Power Plant de-watering permit lists the heavy metals as ug/l, (micrograms per liter) which is easily translated to parts per million, parts per billion, or whichever term anyone chooses to use. The CER requires Enhanced Treatment should the “treated wastewater” test at or above 100 ug/l for Arsenic; 640 ug/l for Antimony; 5.0 for Selenium; .47 ug/l for Thallium; 7.4 ug/l for lead and 6 ug/l for copper. IMO, therefore, Reverend Kanour, was not incorrect when she used the term parts per million.

    The heavy metals in the coal ash wastewater is the problem. Chlorine won’t “kill” heavy metals. They will be taken down river in the “flow” and will sooner or later settle to the river bottom or the bottom of the bay to remain in perpetuity unless and until bottom feeding fish eat them.

    So, perhaps, the only hysteria being leveled today is this article.

    • Sharon, I don’t understand your comment about chlorine. *Obviously* it’s not used to treat metals. It’s used to kill bacteria. The point is, if you wanted the wastewater to be drinkable, you’d have to kill the bacteria by using chlorine… which would potentially harm aquatic life in the river, at least in the mixing zone.

      • Jim, you put chlorine into the equation with your statement in the post. I just wanted to make sure that anyone reading your post understood chlorine isn’t a treatment for heavy metals. It’s that simple.

  6. One more thing, there is a plan to have a water intake much closer to the Bremo Plant…about 8 miles down stream. Honestly, I don’t know how long it will take the heavy metals to settle to the river bottom. But do we want these metals on the river bottom either?

  7. What an interesting discussion…on a Dominion-sponsored blog.
    Anyhow, my wife has her Ph.D. in Chemistry. So, because of her help, I’m aware that the heavy metals (to which I was referring–arsenic in particular) are measured by micrograms per liter. Arsenic was listed as okay by the Concept Engineering Report (DEQ) at the 100 micrograms per liter level. Which equates to .1 ppm. Parts per Million…not Billion. Just clarifying.

  8. Chlorine is used to treat raw water taken from a river to be used for drinking water – but it’s a more complex process than just adding chlorine to the raw water – Other processes have to take place before and after the chlorine and, in fact, if the raw water is not properly processed when treated with chlorine – it will end up with cancer-causing by-products in the drinking water.

    on the wastewater side – Chlorine can be used to kill bacteria and viruses but then after it has done it’s job – it has to be further processed and/or removed before discharge into waterways because it WILL harm critters but so will quite a few other substances INCLUDING toxics if not removed because those toxics will get into the sediment – eaten by smaller critters – retained in their flesh and then eaten by bigger critters who also will retain it in their flesh – and this is not an unknown thing – as you will see warnings where such toxics still exist in sediment and the fish from those areas should not be consumed by some people like kids or pregnant women.

    this is whyNDPES permits essentially have zero thresholds for things like PCBs, mercury, dioxin, kepone and many similar substances that do not bio-degrade but instead are persistent and if not soluble will settle into the bottom and eventually be covered over by new sediment. It don’t matter if they are measured on parts per billion or trillion – they don’t degrade – they stay in the environment and end up in the flesh of bottom feeding critters and in turn whatever eats them.

    The reason Dominion folks won’t drink the water – EVEN if they JUST treated with Chlorine JUST what they would drink (and not all the other that would be released is because it’s, in fact, contaminated with heavy metals – that’s the reality and they’re not about to drink it – for good reason.

    In the bigger scheme of things – this is not enough to cause wide scope contamination of the James – but there is dishonesty in how it is being portrayed… because it IS putting heavy metals that will not degrade – into the river – and Dominion and DEQ are just not being totally up front about it.

    and again – why don’t they get out of this entirely by getting with Maryland and doing what Maryland – and other states are doing and stop do their little PR fan dance…???

    • True that wastewater cannot be treated with chlorine and then discharged into the James. But no one was indicating that it should be. Reverend Kanour was trying to make the point that if heavy metals are released into the river, the river water isn’t suitable to be used for drinking water. Local water treatment systems are not built to deal with heavy metals, whether they are 5 miles downriver or 50 miles downriver.

      Certainly, Dominion is not portraying this genuinely. They never do, whether on this issue or any other.

      A Dominion employee at Bremo holding up a jar of crystal clear coal ash wastewater insinuates that the water is safe for human consumption. The general public doesn’t know that it is still toxic because of the heavy metals which are still there. Where’s Jim Bacon’s outrage on that front? Why isn’t that being reported here on this page…that Dominion is trying to bamboozle the public?

      Where’s Mr. Bacon’s outrage that the Dominion employee asked to drink the water didn’t answer the question truthfully by admitting there are still heavy metals in the water?

      Oops, I forgot that Dominion sponsors this blog, as well as every state and federal legislator from Virginia.

      • Rev Kanour is making an assumption the water is otherwise pristine. In reality water is not pristine distilled water. The real question is does the drinking water trace metals look any different now vs. after the treated water is added? And if so, is it acceptable? In my former town we had natural radon in the groundwater (or was it radium?) and they opted to simply blend it down until it met the EPA drinking water specs. I would have preferred reduction treatment then blending.

        • Disagree with your assumptions about Rev. Kanour’s statement. No one I know, believes the water in the James River meets drinking water standards. But most would recognize that the continued dumping of toxic heavy metals into the James, makes it unsuitable to be used as a source for municipalities for drinking water, especially since those facilities are not designed to remove heavy metals from the water.

  9. Touché, Jim, Marion’s reply about ppm is correct. That said —

    What exactly do people want Dominion to do here, besides grovel, and spend ratepayer money wastefully, then raise electric bills to pay for the waste? They placed the fly ash in a pond years ago as directed by the government to keep it out of the air. Now they are cleaning up the pond, which first means draining the water from it, then hauling the muck away to bury it. Most of the contaminants in the pond water probably came from surface runoff around Quantico that ran into the pond. All contaminants in whatever’s pumped into the river, including those that come from the ash, are being measured to keep them within limits deemed safe by DEQ. And this is without regard for the contaminants already in the river, which are probably higher in some circumstances.

    And we’re seriously debating whether to make this drain-water drinkable, by adding chlorine, before dumping it in the river? Come on now, The Episcopal Church itself calls its members to be “good stewards” of the environment — and a good steward does not waste resources, foolishly or not.

  10. I for one would like to see Dominion follow protocols that other states like Maryland follow ..

    … I do not expect the water to be “pristine” either but I also don’t expect them to mislead people by claiming it’s “safe” and then claiming they can’t drink it because it might have bacteria in it when they could easily treat the portions they would drink.

    they won’t drink the water – even treated – because it IS contaminated with heavy metals. They need to truthfully own that fact and stop trying to misrepresent it and marginalize those that question the veracity of their claims.

    This is stupid corporate stuff – that really reflects on Dominions Corporate Culture .

    The actual issue is in my mind a tempest in a teapot – the volume of what they are doing is small – however, there is no question what-so-ever that they are indeed putting contaminated water in the river – aka – “dilution is the solution to pollution”.

    Again – if they actually did what Maryland wants done – (or other states) – they’d at the least have some level of righteousness –

    the water they are putting in the river is contaminated with heavy metals to the point where even if a glass of it was treated to kill bacteria – they’d still not drink it – because the reality is it’s not something you want to drink – and they can’t seem to admit that small fact… and instead have to play stupid games about it.

    come on Dominion defenders here – admit the water – even treated – is not drinkable…

  11. If there is not a drinking water issue, it is much easier for me to say stuff going to Bay is OK with controls. Drinking water is a hot button. On the one hand, it makes perfect logical sense to say, we accept no contamination upstream of drinking water. On the other hand, the reality is, that is apparently not what the law says. Obviously we can see Dominion is legally doing that now with DEQ supervision, which implies the whole Country and probably whole world is doing that in many many places. Not to mention runoff from farms, municipal discharges etc.

    • As far as the Bay is concerned, don’t forget the Port of Baltimore. It likely puts some ugly stuff into the water. Yet, we (or at least I) don’t hear much about the Port and runoff. Could there be a deal in place?

      • Not sure TMT. Going to be interesting to see if MD has some positive contributions or simple obstructionism. Obviously in the base case we still need to treat the water for wildlife safety, even if not for drinking.

  12. well… Dominion CHOSE to imply that the water was “drinking water” safe by playing with words instead of admitting from the get go – that it was not – even if it was treated for bacteria and DEQ did not make that clear – EITHER – so WHY?

    they just messed up … they have a terrible PR philosophy … an incompetent ones that almost seems to seek controversy.. rather than just be honest about it and do what other states have done – and move on.

    DEQ “supervision” comes across as Dominion enjoying a too-cozy relationship with the regulator in my mind. DEQ itself has not made clear that they are requiring industry-standard requirements and instead encourages a perception that they have developed an ad-hoc approach – that suits Dominion rather than a standard one used by other states.

    You can’t do business this way. it harms the reputation of Dominion and DEQ.

    and something even sillier – with some folks in this blog at times positing that Govt is incompetent and that the private sector is “better” and here is an excellent example of how that “works”…. not…

    • No, Larry, Dominion never implied that the wastewater was drinking water. Dominion went out of its way to say that it was NOT drinking water, and that it would be ridiculous to treat the wastewater to drinking water standards. The only people who have brought up drinking water are protesters who seem to think that Dominion should not be allowed to discharge water into the river unless it meets drinking water standards.

      • Wrong again, Mr. Bacon. No one claimed the toxic coal ash wastewater being dumped into the River needs to meet drinking water standards. Rev. Kanour said Dominion had the wherewithal to do better. But you didn’t include that in your attacks on her, perhaps the RTD article didn’t include that portion of her statement. I know television coverage did, however.

        All that has ever been asked is that the DEQ require Dominion to use the EPA “best technology available” standard for treating the wastewater, that fish tissue testing and river bottom sediment testing be completed. Perhaps you nor DEQ realizes Dominion just purchased an adjoining property to the BREMO plant because the well on the property was contaminated with Chromium 6 and the home had fly ash in the attic.

        The new name for DEQ has become Don’t Expect Quality…at least as it pertains to protecting the health, safety and welfare of the public.

  13. WHERE did Dominion say that?

    here’s what was said:

    ” Aeration. Water from the coal ash pond is piped into a tank where the addition of air facilitates the water-cleaning process.
    pH adjustment. Acidity is reduced, which encourages particles in the water to separate and settle.

    Clarification. Chemicals are added to the water to help the particles clump together so they will settle out of the water.
    Settling tanks. Solids from the clarification process are separated from the water, collected, and disposed of in a landfill.

    Filtering. The water is passed through filters to remove even more particles.
    Enhanced treatment. The water is tested. If certain constituents such as heavy metals remain close to trigger levels agreed to by the James River Association, the water is run through an extra piece of equipment to remove them.

    pH adjustment. If needed, the pH level of the water is adjusted back to levels that are safe for the river.

    Holding tanks. The water is pumped to one of four 950,000-gallon holding tanks where it is tested again before being released into the water. Dominion expects the water in these tanks to meet standards, but if it doesn’t, it will be routed through the treatment process again.”

    now this sounds a LOT like the processes used to produce drinking water – to me.

    so where in this “process” do they say – that even though they’re going through all of these steps – it will not be drinking water quality?

    why do you go through all of these steps if at the end – it still has contaminants in it and it is implied that if chlorine was added it would be “ok” but then not good for river critters?

    all along – we’re playing a little game here – and there is no reason to do it and ..it attracts those who otherwise would not be – if Dominon was totally up front and admitted that it was NOT drinking water – and was STILL contaminated with heavy metals – AND that they were following industry standard protocols followed by other states LIKE Maryland.

    why can we not do the above – and be done with it?

  14. you know – at the end of the day- we STILL don’t know how this compares to other states and other NPDES thresholds and standards.

    for instance, would a company be able to discharge this concentration of heavy metals regularly with their permit – as long as they did not exceed the parts per million threshold?

    Does Virginia current have industries that put this level of contaminates in rivers as long as they have the requisite “mixing zones”?

    What’s EPA standard for new permits for these kinds of metals released via permit?

    • Don’t forget lots of times industry is not the problem, compared to towns, government, farms, etc. The proclivity to assume industry are the bad guys is a USA thing.

    • The EPA did not classify coal ash as hazardous. That’s the foundation of the issue here.

      • Where do we stand?
        EPA did not classify coal ash as hazardous, but believe they did develop new tougher disposal regs requiring lined-landfill disposal after a certain future date. Dominion is trying to beat that deadline, I am thinking. Not sure how or if that disposal practice deadline impacts the water treatment side.

        • From the EPA’s Coal Ash Impoundment Fact Sheet:

          “Inactive Units
          The rule also deals with surface impoundments that have ceased receiving waste by the effective date of the rule (“inactive units”). Those units, if they have water and contain CCRs, still pose a risk, especially of structural failure. If these units complete closure (that is dewater and a final cover) within three years of the publication of this rule, then they are not subject to any additional requirements under the rule.”
          BTW, the rule was issued December 2014.

          Bremo has 3 ash pounds, two of which are rated by the EPA has a Significant Hazard. The third pond is not rated at all. Significant hazard means: “Failure is likely to cause significant economic loss, environmental damage or damage to infrastructure.” The dam height for the North Pond is 102 feet, the West Pond dam is 17 feet.

          Both the East and North Ash Ponds are listed as unlined, the West Pond listed as Unknown. The North Ash Pond was listed as active though that’s a bit confusing since Bremo was converted to natural gas a few years ago. Perhaps, Dominion brings in coal ash from another location. The North Ash Pond is 96 acres and at maximum capacity will hold 1,401,161,143 gallons. The West Ash Pond has a capacity of 94,496,914 gallons. The East Pond is not rated.

          I’m sure that is more information that you wanted. However, Dominion is certainly rushing to make the deadline to simply cap in place their inactive coal ash ponds.

          • Thank you, well it appears EPA clearly gave Dominion a pond closure road map. A little like an unfunded Federal mandate forced down on the state, and DEQ has to handle as best as possible, hopefully.

  15. • These and other coal ash dumps have been there for decades–mostly since CAA requirements made them stop pumping this stuff into the air–and it’s been leaching all that icky stuff into adjacent waters all that time. The cleanup and closure is going to be an improvement.
    • The impoundment (dam) failures in KY and NC made big headlines, so “coal ash” gets a lot of attention. But those were pond impoundment failures. The closure plans will prevent further stormwater from leaching through the dumps.
    • As Sharon notes, coal ash disposal was recently regulated by EPA similar to “municipal” (not “toxic”) waste. In theory Dominion plans would have to comply (see, OTOH below). The time to comment and protest was during EPA rulemaking.
    • I agree some of the publicity, such as raising questions about the impact on Potomac oyster farmers, was irresponsible – again, this stuff had been leaching for decades; and the cleanup is going to be an improvement from the status quo ante. (I hope this has not tarnished the Potomac oyster farmers’ brand.)

    OTOH –
    • Dominion’s “decanting” at Possum Point last summer (Pond E?) was probably not in order.
    • VDEQs credibility in this matter has been badly tainted. (I must say, I loved the activists’ demonstration with the “golf cart shuttle” between Dominion and DEQ! That Mike Naylor’s sponsored visit to the Masters was legal, says as much about Virginia ethics and the need for reform, as it does about either of the two primary parties.)
    • Pressure and sunlight from outside groups have resulted in much better plans.
    • I don’t trust Dominion.

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