Category Archives: Energy

Sierra Club’s Coal Ash Gambit

Coal ash pond at the Chesapeake Energy Center

Coal ash pond at the Chesapeake Energy Center

by James A. Bacon

The Sierra Club has filed a lawsuit charging that coal ash stored at Dominion Virginia Power’s shuttered coal plant in Chesapeake is leaking arsenic into the Elizabeth River. The environmental organization wants the U.S. courts to compel Dominion to scrap plans for burying the coal ash in place at four power stations around the state and to truck the material to lined landfills instead.

Earlier today, attorneys for the environmental group began presenting their case in the Richmond courtroom of U.S. District Court Judge John A. Gibney, advancing the argument that unsafe levels of arsenic found in sediment samples originated from underground water that migrated through the coal ash pits.

“These discharges of arsenic will continue indefinitely with no end in sight,” said Deborah Murray, the attorney representing the Sierra Club. “The only way to stop the pollution is to remove the ash to a lined landfill.”

Dominion countered that the Sierra Club’s arguments are totally unproven. The organization cherry picked “snippets” from the voluminous testing data filed with Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), wore “blinders” to the mountain of evidence showing that water quality complies with the law, and offered a “tortured interpretation” of how the arsenic got from the coal ash to the surrounding waters, argued Dabney Carr for Dominion.

DEQ has consistently found Dominion to be in compliance over four decades, said Carr. “The goal of this suit is to overturn DEQ’s decision,” he added, addressing the judge. “The Sierra Club is asking you to substitute your judgment for the DEQ’s judgment.”

Dominion has been accumulating coal ash, the mineral residue from coal combustion, at the Chesapeake Energy Center for decades. Like other utilities, the company mixed it with water to keep the dust down and stored the material in lagoons. After years of study, the Environmental Protection Agency issued new standards last year for cleaning up coal ash. The first step is to de-water the ash, treat the water, and discharge it into rivers and streams. For the most part, Dominion has reached agreement with DEQ and environmental groups on how to do that.

The second step is to store the coal ash in a place where it will not continue to contaminate water supplies. Dominion proposes to consolidate the residue and cap it with an impermeable lining to prevent the infiltration of rain water. DEQ is studying those permits now.

Contending that a cap does nothing to stop the infiltration of groundwater, environmental groups have pushed Dominion to truck the material to lined landfills — a project that Dominion estimates would cost $3 billion. While some environmental groups focus their efforts on DEQ, the Sierra Club is going the federal route. The organization believes the lawsuit against Dominion is the first challenge of its kind to the Clean Water Act. If the group wins the case, it will set a precedent not only for all four of Dominion’s coal ash sites but for power companies across the country.

While the implications are national, the facts of the case are highly localized. And, as was clear from Murray’s presentation, Sierra Club’s case is circumstantial.

The Chesapeake facility sits upon land comprised of loose and sandy soils that allow water to travel through easily. The coal ash ranges from 15 to 30 feet thick, and the bottom of the pile varies in elevation from 16 feet above sea level to six feet below. A liner was placed between the disposal site and the ground but it is leaking, Murray said.

However, when asked by Judge Gibney how she knew the liner was leaking, she had no persuasive response.

The key evidence presented for the accumulation of arsenic came from a 2010 report commissioned by Dominion that analyzed sediment “cores” — cylindrical-shaped samples of creek and river bottom — to determine if there was “natural attenuation” of arsenic. (Natural attenuation is when nature takes care of the problem, in this case by binding the arsenic with iron to form a harmless substance.) Five of the samples at a depth of zero to three inches contained arsenic in excess of the permitted level of 36 micrograms per liter.

The Sierra Club cherry picked these data points from mountains of data collected from samples taken twice a year over decades, countered Carr. All tests of surface water, as opposed to sediment, have indicated arsenic levels at concentrations well below drinking water standards. Every water sample — 73 taken over the past thirteen years — were well below Virginia and EPA water quality standards for arsenic. Said Carr: “There is no evidence of arsenic in the surface waters.”

Where did the arsenic in the sediment come from if not from the nearby coal ash pits? Dozens of other industries release discharges in the Elizabeth River, said Carr, and some are known to release arsenic. The Sierra Club has offered no proof that the arsenic levels in found in the sediment differs from those elsewhere in the river. The group has conducted none of its own research and offers no additional evidence. It relied entirely upon data that DEQ used to find Dominion in compliance with the Clean Water Act — “the very same data and information DEQ has relied upon to conclude that Dominion is in compliance with its permit at CEC (the Chesapeake Energy Center).”

Maryland Drops Coal Ash Appeal

The coal ash ponds at Possum Point

The coal ash ponds at Possum Point

The state of Maryland has dropped its appeal of permits granted to Dominion Virginia Power for discharging treated water from its Possum Point Power Station coal ash ponds into Quantico Creek and the Potomac River.

“Maryland is supportive of recent agreements in Virginia to increase wastewater treatment protections and monitoring protocols,” Ben Grumbles, Maryland’s secretary of the environment, said in a statement. “We are engaged in and encouraged by the ongoing discussions with Virginia and Dominion to do even more testing for fish tissue, water quality and sediment in the river beyond the current testing and monitoring in current or soon-to-be-proposed permits.”

Jay Apperson, a spokesman for the department, cited Dominion’s commitments to enhanced treatment of the water drawn from coal ash ponds and to specifications that meet or exceed Maryland’s water quality standards, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch. He continued:

Moreover, Virginia DEQ has pledged to draft a stringent and comprehensive solid waste permit for the Dominion facility that incorporates all federal requirements. Virginia DEQ has further discussed its intent to engage Maryland during this permitting process as groundwater monitoring and surface water monitoring safeguards are included to protect Quantico Creek and the Potomac River.

The only group persisting in an appeal of the coal ash water-discharge permits is the Potomac Riverkeeper Network.

Bacon’s bottom line: The big remaining issue is how Dominion will dispose of the coal ash itself. Dominion has applied for permits to consolidate the material in capped pits on-site, asserting that the alternative preferred by environmentalists — trucking it to lined landfills — would cost $3 billion more. The statements from Maryland’s Department of the Environment suggests that Maryland has taken part in intensive, behind-the-scenes negotiations with Virginia DEQ, as Virginia regulators decide whether to grant the solid waste permits or not.


Activists Pressure McAuliffe on Environmental Agenda

gas_pipelineby James A. Bacon

Governor Terry McAuliffe is getting heat from his far left flank for endorsing the construction of natural gas pipelines in Virginia, supporting offshore drilling and supporting Dominion Virginia Power’s plans for disposing of coal ash. While crediting McAuliffe for “small steps” in supporting solar power, energy efficiency and coastline resiliency in the face of rising sea levels, a coalition of mostly left-leaning environmentalists is calling for stronger measures.

“On the biggest, most polluting issues of our time, the Governor simply has not shown he has heard the voices of affected communities or joined the growing statewide call for justice,” states an open letter signed by more than sixty environmental, social justice and property rights groups.

Notably absent from the signatories were mainstream environmental organizations such as the Southern Environmental Law Center, the Sierra Club and the National Resources Defense Council. The mainstream groups support the same positions but have worked within the system by lobbying, filing lawsuits and participating in gubernatorial stakeholder groups. 

The McAuliffe administration responded forcefully with a defense of the governor’s record on clean energy, solar power, water quality and preparing for climate change. “The governor recognizes that clean energy is the lifeblood of the new Virginia economy, and a majority of Virginians support his work to create jobs while protecting the natural resources that are so important to the commonwealth’s quality of life,” spokesman Christina Nuckols told the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Arrayed against the environmental and social justice activists are a coalition of manufacturers, chambers of commerce, labor unions and economic development groups that support the pipeline. These groups have been far less active and less visible.

Specifically, the open letter calls for McAuliffe to:

  • Discontinue his support of offshore drilling.
  • Reconsider his support for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and Mountain Valley Pipeline, and use his legal authority to review and challenge water permits under the Clean Water Act.
  • Immediately stop the plans of Dominion Virginia Power and other companies to “dump millions of additional tons of toxic coal ash liquid” into Virginia rivers or to otherwise improperly store the ash.
  • Support strong policy solutions to combat coastal flooding while capping carbon pollution.
  • Commit to a “mass-based” plan under the Clean Power Plan that would set stricter limits on CO2 emissions from electric power plants and “create thousands of new renewable energy jobs.”

Casting itself as a “multi-generational, multi-racial, multi-regional” movement for social change, the group is organizing a “march on the mansion” in Richmond on July 23.

Bacon’s bottom line: As a moderate Democrat, McAuliffe walks a fine line between his number one priority, creating jobs, and supporting environmentalists’ goals. While the mainstream environmental groups push their agenda from the inside — former SELC attorney Angela Navarro now works as Deputy Secretary of Natural Resources, for instance — the activist groups are pushing from the outside.

McAuliffe has supported the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan to curtail CO2 emissions, implicated in global warming, but he has not yet committed to any of the four broad options available to states for meeting the federal goals. The “mass-based” plan favored by environmentalists, critics argue, would cost ratepayers billions of dollars.

The governor also has supported the pipeline projects, arguing that greater use of natural gas would allow Virginia to transition away from coal, reduce CO2 emissions, and compete for industry that uses natural gas as a feedstock or energy source. The pipelines have stirred up a hornet’s nest of opposition among Virginia mountain communities along the route, where people fear, among other things, that construction and operation of the pipelines will cause erosion that releases sediment into streams, rivers and water supplies. They argue that the regulatory apparatus, divided between the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and DEQ, is broken. In particular, they fear that DEQ is being constrained by pressure from the governor’s office to not move more aggressively to regulate the impact of the pipelines upon water quality.

The coal ash issue has been contentious, too. While DEQ has issued Dominion permits for treating and disposing of the water in coal ash ponds, it has not yet issued permits for disposing of the mineral residue itself. Environmentalists want to put the material into lined landfills to prevent any possibility of groundwater contamination. Dominion says that option could cost $3 billion, which would be passed on to rate payers. The McAuliffe administration has not indicated which way it leans.

The Tradeoffs of Burying Electric Power Lines

How much is it worth to ensure faster restoration of electric service after a major storm? A lot, if it’s you. Perhaps not so much, if it’s someone else!

by James A. Bacon

Anyone who regards the State Corporation Commission as a wholly owned subsidiary of Dominion Virginia Power really isn’t paying attention. SCC commissioners have their own priorities, and they aren’t necessarily those of Dominion. An example was on display yesterday when the commission held hearings on a Dominion request to spend $140 million to bury its most vulnerable power lines so it could get customers back on line quicker after widespread outages.

The SCC had rejected an earlier Dominion proposal to spend $263 million on a plan to bury the 20% of overhead lines most responsible for outages and time lost. Dominion had argued that burying those lines would cut average electricity restoration times after major storms in half. After the SCC rebuffed that proposal, the utility came back with a scaled-back proposal to spend $140 million, adding a modest $6 per year to customers bills.

Based on their comments and questions, the commissioners did not look favorably upon it. Writes John Ramsey with the Richmond Times-Dispatch:

Commissioner Mark C. Christie said during the hearing that the utility’s calculation of the societal benefit to justify the plan is the wrong measurement since less expensive options to reduce outages — such as increased tree trimming — would have similar impact.

“The whole question about this thing is bang for the buck,” Christie said. “Certainly, you will get fewer outages when the storm comes through. But how do you know all the extra money you spent on undergrounding was more cost-effective than having more trucks out there or tree-trimming or whatever less expensive options?

“We know if you underground a line down a block, we know it’s going to benefit that block in all likelihood. Does that mean it was worth the expenditure that goes into peoples’ bills?

Dominion maintains a portfolio of a dozen different reliability programs, encompassing tree trimming, upgrading old equipment to current standards, and installing sensors to detect failing parts and prioritize investment, among others. (See “Towards a Smarter Grid.”) The company is continually fine-tuning its allocation of resources. For example, it has moved from trimming routes every three years to an approach that takes into account line voltage, how fast the trees grow and many other factors. The inability to trim trees outside of electric-line right of way, said Dominion lawyers at the hearing, places a major restriction on how aggressively the company can trim.

Bacon’s bottom line: Two points…

First: Electric reliability is part of the company’s DNA. One of the metrics Dominion uses to gauge its own performance is the speed at which it restores electricity service. Undoubtedly the SCC commissioners take reliability into account, but they appear to be more concerned at the moment with the impact of spending on rate payers. And who can blame them? Dominion, like other utilities across the country, has spent billions of dollars meeting tougher federal standards for toxic emissions, and it expects to spend billions more meeting the Clean Power Plan standards for carbon emissions. With all the concern over terrorism, cyber-attacks, electro-magnetic pulses and other threats to grid security, the company also is spending hundreds of millions on measures to harden the grid. Ultimately, citizens and businesses pay for all this. In the instance of restoring service after storms, the SCC seems to be prioritizing cost over reliability.

Second: Dominion has sought, or is seeking, SCC approval for a half dozen major electric transmission line projects that have aroused the ire of citizens concerned about the visual impact. Invariably, transmission-line foes suggest burying the line. That option has been prominently suggested for the controversial Surry-Skiffes Creek line which would impact views of the James River near the historic Jamestown settlement. I am speculating here, but I’m wondering if the SCC is skeptical about the cost of burying electric lines in any context, not just for ensuring reliability.

In terms of pure self interest, Dominion has no reason to object to burying distribution and transmission lines — as long as the SCC allows it to recover its costs. If Dominion balks at burying lines, it’s because the executives who deal with the SCC daily and know the minds of regulators anticipate a tough sell before the commission. It may be hard for people to wrap their mind’s around this, but the SCC is boss and Dominion is the supplicant.

Duke Study Documents Coal Ash Leakage into Groundwater

Graphic credit: Environmental Science and Technology

Graphic credit: Environmental Science and Technology

by James A. Bacon

New tests and analysis conducted by Duke University add to the body of evidence indicating that heavy metals in coal ash ponds leach into the water and and make their way into surrounding water, sometimes in excess of federal standards for drinking water and aquatic life.

The researchers sampled surface water near seven coal ash pits and seeps from berms ringing the unlined ponds at seven sites in four states, including Dominion Virginia Power’s Bremo and Chesapeake power stations, and combined it with data from 156 shallow groundwater monitoring wells in North Carolina. The scientists used “forensic tracers” — isotopes of boron and strontium created in coal combustion and not found in a natural environment — to track the movement of metals from the coal ash ponds to nearby waters.

The research, which was funded by the Southern Environmental Law Center, appeared in Environmental Science and Technology, a peer-reviewed journal.

Read the study here. And read the more-comprehensible-to-the-layman coverage by the Richmond Times-Dispatch here. Writes Robert Zullo with the T-D:

At Bremo, samples were taken from Holman Creek, a leak from the ash pond wall that was running toward the river and the river itself downstream of the power plant. … One test, for example, showed arsenic at a concentration of 45.4 parts per billion, more than 45 times background levels and 4.5 times the federal Environmental Protection Agency drinking water maximum contaminant level of 10 parts per billion. Another test showed arsenic at 10.7 parts per billion.

Bacon’s bottom line: Coal Combustion Residuals, of which coal ash is one type, is the largest source of industrial waste in the United States. Yet the processes by which leachate from the coal residue works its way into surrounding waters appears not to be terribly well understood. The federal government has ordered a particular set of remedies — treat and drain the water, then cap or landfill the mineral residue — in what appears to be a state of imperfect knowledge. State governments have the authority to exceed federal standards, which environmental groups are pressing them to do. They are dealing with the same imperfect knowledge.

When the water is drained from the coal ash, the next question is what to do with the mineral residue. Dominion proposes consolidating the material on site and capping it to prevent rainwater from seeping through. Environmental groups, concerned that groundwater migrating through the ash pits could contaminate nearby waters, want Dominion to dispose of it in lined landfills — a process that Dominion says could cost rate payers $3 billion.

The Duke study is potentially important because, as the authors write in their abstract, “Given the large number of coal ash impoundments throughout the United States, the systematic evidence for leaking of coal ash ponds shown in this study highlights potential environmental risks from unlined coal ash ponds.”

We’re talking about what could be a genuine problem here in Virginia. We can quantify the very real, $3 billion cost of disposing of the coal ash in lined landfills, but it is exceedingly difficult to put a dollar value on the risk to human and aquatic life posed by leaving the mineral in capped but unlined pits. I’m not sure how we go about even conducting that analysis. I would like to think that any regulatory decisions are made after rigorous study and thought. But that’s probably too much to ask in a world in which political decisions are made under time pressure on the basis of ideology and self-interest.

Haymarket Project More than Amazon’s “Extension Cord,” Dominion Says

electric_cordDominion Virginia Power would have to upgrade its electricity distribution system to the Haymarket area of Prince William County sooner or later, even without the development of a data-center campus, testified Mark R. Gill, an electric transmission planning engineer with Dominion, in State Corporation Commission testimony filed yesterday.

“Without the request for service to the Haymarket Campus the Project would not be needed at this time; however, the high likelihood for nearby load growth, as showed in Prince William County’s own Build-Out Analysis, indicates that the Project would be needed at some point in the future to maintain reliable service in the area,” said Gill.

According to the build-out analysis, 8.5 million square feet of non-residential development and at least 889 residential units could be developed in Dominion and Northern Virginia Electric Cooperative (NOVEC)’s service territory around Haymarket, Gill said.

Gill was responding to earlier testimony by SCC staff engineer Neil Joshipura that in the absence of data centers proposed by an electric customer widely presumed to be Amazon Web Services, the electric system upgrade “would not be needed.” Dominion’s estimate for the preferred upgrade is $50 million. An alternative that would entail burying part of the route is estimated to cost $166.7 million.

Neighbors have vociferously opposed the project, fearing that it will obstruct rural views and negatively impact home values. Describing the new line, new substation, and existing line upgrades as a giant “extension cord” for Amazon, project foes argue that the cost of the project should be charged to Amazon rather than Dominion ratepayers generally. By arguing that the improvements will serve homeowners and businesses other than the “customer” presumed to be Amazon, Gill’s testimony buttressed the position that the project should be rolled into the Dominion rate base.


Amazon-Dominion Renewable Energy Deal a “Game Changer”

Amazon data center. Photo credit: New York Times

Amazon data center. Photo credit: New York Times

An energy-services deal between Dominion Virginia Power (DVP) and Amazon Web Services (AWS) is a “first-of-its-kind agreement” that could accelerate the integration of renewable energy into the electric grid, according to a recent analysis by the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), an organization dedicated to unlocking market-based solutions to combat climate change.

“This is a turning point in the electricity industry,” says Hervé Touati, head of RMI’s Business Renewables Center, which streamlines and accelerates corporate renewable energy procurement. “By offering these services to Amazon to help the company manage its purchased power, [Dominion] is . . . working directly with a corporation like no utility has done before.”

Amazon, the world’s largest cloud provider, has set a goal of supplying its data centers with 40% renewable energy by the end of 2016. The company has signed power purchase agreements (PPAs) for four utility-scale renewable energy projects in the Eastern U.S. In the past, electricity generated from these projects would have been fed into the PJM regional grid at the wholesale market price, while data centers in Northern Virginia consumed energy from a different part of the grid, paying the retail rate of electricity based on Dominion’s power mix, which includes coal, nuclear, natural gas and renewables.

Now Dominion may administer the scheduling and settlement activity related to Amazon’s wholesale market activities, while Amazon pays a market-based retail rate that closely matches the wholesale market rates of its renewable energy projects. Aligning the production and consumption of renewable energy more exactly reduces market risk for Amazon.

States the analysis:

This arrangement allows DVP to accommodate AWS’ renewable energy commitments without shifting costs to other customers. And most importantly it helps AWS bring renewable energy to the same regional grid that supplies its data centers in Northern Virginia, meaning AWS can reach its ambitious sustainability goals while encouraging local economic development.

“With this agreement Dominion is evolving its business model and putting its customer first,” says Letha Tawney, director of utility innovation at World Resources Institute. “This unique agreement shows the importance of corporations working with utilities to come up with solutions to their goals.”

A similar proposal before the State Corporation Commission would allow other qualifying customers  to enter into similar arrangements. States the analysis: “This could dramatically change the way that corporations enable large-scale renewable energy projects in Virginia, allowing them to work with their utilities to tailor solutions to the companies’ unique energy needs on the regional grid.”

There could be big benefits for Virginia as well, said the Rocky Mountain Institute. The deal could pave the way for the state to win new data center business and build its renewable energy industry.