Brian West, whose property backs up the Dominion Virginia Power’s coal ash ponds at the Possum Point Power Station, has had his well water tested three times in the past few months. He got three very different results, leaving him wondering how safe the water is to drink.
The first test, conducted by the Virginia Department of Health, found lead, a metal commonly associated with coal ash, to be safely within Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) limits for drinking water: 3 parts per billion, a fraction of the EPA’s “action level” of 15 parts per billion. However, a second test commissioned by the Potomac Riverkeeper Network found a lead concentration of 549 parts per billion. A third test by the Virginia Cooperative Extension’s Household Water Quality Program logged lead of 120 parts per billion, lower but still over the limit.
Maybe the water is safe, maybe it isn’t. Needless to say, West isn’t taking any chances — he’s not drinking the water anymore.
The widely divergent test results, reported in an excellent article by the Richmond Times-Dispatch, raise critical questions as Dominion seeks Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) permits to close its coal ash ponds at Possums Point and the Bremo Power Station.
Like other electric power companies, Dominion faces a federal mandate to shut down coal ash ponds in a two-step process. Dominion has received DEQ permits to de-water the ponds, a roughly year-long procedure it has commenced at both facilities. The next step is determining what to do with the dry coal ash. Dominion wants to impound it locally, capping it with impermeable material to prevent rain water from seeping through and getting contaminated. But environmental groups, arguing that the caps don’t prevent the leeching of compounds into ground water, insist that Dominion ship the ash to lined landfills. Dominion responds that such a solution could cost rate payers upward of $3 billion.
The sparring over well water tests shows how much uncertainty reigns. One might think that testing water for toxic levels of contaminants would be a straight-forward task. But West’s experience suggests that testing is anything but simple. Results may vary depending upon the methodology used, Dwayne Roadcap ta health department director, told the Times-Dispatch. Was the water sample taken as a “first draw” or after purging the water from the system? What was the sample’s chain of custody? It was not clear from the article how the Department of Health’s methodology might have differed from the Potomac Riverkeepers’.
A related question is whether or the lead in West’s well water originated from Dominion’s coal ash ponds. The Department of Health suggested that the lead might have come from West’s pipes. West rejected that possibility. But if West’s groundwater had been contaminated by the coal ash, would it not have been contaminated by other heavy metals as well? The article makes no mention of cobalt, cadmium, mercury or other substances commonly associated with ash.
Another question is how rapidly groundwater migrates through the proposed coal-ash pits and how fast contamination can spread through the water table. Dominion argues that the movement is very slow, that frequent testing on the perimeter can spot any build-up, and that the company can intercept the water flow by digging ditches, extracting the water and then treating it. Citing tests that indicate coal-ash contamination in Quantico Creek, riverkeeper Dean Naujoks doesn’t trust Dominion to do the job. The Southern Environmental Law Center, which provides legal representation to the Riverkeepers, says it is “still looking into whether there’s a connection between coal ash and the contamination at wells in Possum Point.”
Bacon’s bottom line: If environmentalists can’t persuade DEQ to force Dominion to truck the coal ash to landfills, expect them to fight for the toughest possible water testing requirements, holding out for a strict methodology and independent, third-party testing whose objectivity is beyond reproach. Expect Dominion to agree to almost any testing and mitigation regime that allows the company to avoid the $3 billion expense of shipping coal ash in thousands of truck trips along narrow roads past peoples’ houses to landfills dozens of miles away.There are currently no comments highlighted.