Treated Coal Ash Water Flows Today

Jason Williams, environmental manager, addresses members of the Richmond media.

Jason Williams (right), environmental manager, addresses Richmond media.

by James A. Bacon

After months of controversy, Dominion Virginia Power will start draining today more than 200 million gallons of water from its coal ash ponds at the Bremo Power Station. “We’re treating to levels that will be fully protective of the river,” Jason Williams, the environmental manager in charge of the project, told a media gaggle invited yesterday to view the water treatment facilities.

Treating the water to meet quality standards protective of aquatic life will cost about $35 million at Bremo and take a year or more, depending on how smoothly the process goes and how much rainwater is added to the coal ash ponds during the period. If Dominion consistently meets those standards, Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) officials say that the odds of event negatively impacting human health or aquatic life in any given year are less than three in one thousand.

While the eight-step water-treatment system is basically the same design that the company submitted with its permit application to the Department of Environmental Quality, Dominion agreed to stricter protocols for treating, monitoring and testing the water quality in a settlement with the James River Association.

Coal ash is the residue from coal combustion, and it contains heavy metals that are toxic in high enough concentrations. Historically, electric utilities have stored the ash in ponds where it mixed with water to create a sludge. To prevent leaks and spillage from the ponds, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is requiring power companies to remove the water and then find a safe place to store the ash. The James River Association has signed off on Dominion’s plan to de-water the coal ash at Bremo. Meanwhile, Dominion is applying for a separate permit to cover the disposal of the de-watered ash, which will create its own set of issues and potentially generate a fresh controversy.

For now, though, everyone is on board with the de-watering plan. Williams outlined the eight-step process, which he calls “state of the art.”


Graphic credit: Dominion (Click for larger image)

  • 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.

Normally, Dominion hopes, the process will clean the water to state standards in only seven steps — the “enhanced treatment” step is held in reserve as a backup. If internal monitoring shows that certain constituents exceed agreed-upon “trigger” levels, the water is run through this extra step, which uses activated alumina and limestone to remove undesirable constituents by absorption.

Dominion is limited to discharging 1,500 gallons per minute into the James River. That compares to a river flow of 5.5 million gallons per minute in normal conditions. But the standards are set to keep aquatic life in the river safe outside a “mixing zone” in low-flow conditions statistically expected to occur once every ten years.

Dominion and the James River Association have expressed optimism that the treatment process could provide a model for the de-watering of coal ash at the Chesterfield Power Station. With minor modifications, the treatment process is the same at Dominion’s Possum Point Power Station. However, the Potomac Riverkeeper Association is appealing the permit on the grounds that DEQ is using an inappropriate standard.

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11 responses to “Treated Coal Ash Water Flows Today

  1. Well, let’s just hope someone besides Dominion and the DEQ are out there on the river beyond the ‘mixing zone’ taking samples.

  2. I’d say it’s just basic water pre-treatment without a more expensive final treatment step such as a biotreatment reactor (eg; activated sludge etc). Without more data I have no way of knowing if basic pretreatment is adequate.

    But it’s a heck of a good first step. Way better than the old days when raw stuff (municipal sewage etc) was dumped into water untreated. As a civilized society we would in theory minimize and treat wastes prior to disposal, including for example trash before landfilling.

  3. The James River Association folks are not pushovers; they must feel Dominion is being reasonable here as to the River. But you raise an important question, Jim: this is the first phase of a multi-stage disposal process that leads to removing the de-watered sludge to some other destination. Once upon a time, ash was a key constituent of “cinder block.” Manufacturing materials in which the toxic content is locked up, inert, in a block of concrete is win-win disposal, yet I’ll bet you Dominion intends to dump the sludge as fill, the simplest way to get rid of it, where its runoff will continue to threaten ground water. Any comments?

    • Dominion recycled coal ash at its Chesapeake plant. The key is to have a viable market for the recycled product, typically cement or cinder block. Such a market exists in Tidewater. It does not exist in Fluvanna, roughly an hour’s drive west of Richmond.

  4. may be a tempest in a teapot but would be curious to know how other states are dealing with this. Is there a best-practices standard?

    My biggest complaint is why Dominion can deal with stuff like this without turning it into a PR dust-up. If they had chosen a method being used in other states – i.e. not make themselves the outlier , unique exception… I’m sure a lot quieter and calmer process would have ensued.

    Why does Dominion keep doing this kind of thing – not only with coal ash, but pipelines and powerlines?

    By the way I see where the Brunswick Power Station has come online.

    DVP sez ” was needed to match growing demand and to replace electricity from older, coal-fired plants.”

    my question is what older coal plants is it replacing?

    • Larry I assume you are well aware of the announced VA coal plant retirements including Yorktown that are listed on the Internet and included in state plan. By my count that’s about 45% of the VA coal capacity to shut. Those were all announced before the pending Clean Power Plan. I’d don’t think anyone has defined if the CPP would necessitate further coal plant shut downs in VA.

      • @Tbill – I’m looking at the location of the Brunswick gas plant which has come online and then the coal plants that are closed are will be shortly – in a geographic way.

        what coal plants in Va have closed or will shortly that Brunswick will be taking over for?

        How would Brunswick replace Yorktown ? Isn’t it pretty far away for that?

        • But the nice thing about electricity is that it can be conveyed via high power lines for great distances without too much loss. So we’d have to understand the power lines. However, the new plant probably does more than replace shut down coal plants, it probably also reduces power imports from out of state.

  5. This invitation-only event tends to avoid a major point. It took lots of green and social activism and the media to make the permit stricter than it originally was. The major question is where was DEQ? And while you paint everything hunky-dory at Bremo, there’s a trouble at Possum Point where Maryland is suing over a very similar permit.

    Thus, your statement: “For now, though, everyone is on board with the de-watering plan” is wrong and misleading since you don’t mention Possum Point.

    The price of sponsorship, I guess?

    And LarrytheG, Duke Energy will be railing the coal ash waste that ended up in the Dan River to a Waste Management landfill in Amelia County, Va. There are other options, including completely sealed liners, but I guess we will have to wait for the official, a approved view, which I am sure BR will dutifully post.

    • Try reading all the way to the bottom before making your snide comments. You might have seen this.

      “With minor modifications, the treatment process is the same at Dominion’s Possum Point Power Station. However, the Potomac Riverkeeper Association is appealing the permit on the grounds that DEQ is using an inappropriate standard.”

  6. I still make the same comment.

    Surely – this is not a Va or Dominion-power -only issue.

    What are the specific issues that Md has with Va’s DEQ approach?

    How about other states?

    I just think looking at this in a DVP, Va-DEQ – only – lens is not informative.

    And again – DVP could have essentially inoculated itself from all this hub-bub by doing what has been predominately done by other states –

    I just don’t understand why DVP seems to almost go out of it’s way to create these issues in the first place.

    It’s totally counter-productive and damages VDP’s reputation with many folks who would easily be turned into supporters of VDP, if VDP took a less combative approach to dealing with these issues.

    It must be in the culture of the organization .. because it follows along the same lines of the ACP and the James River Powerlines.

    They sure don’t need to roll over – to anyone – much less the greenies but at the same time – it just seems they almost like to throw their weight around – and get it splattered in the news.

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