by James A. Bacon
The State Water Control Board approved today the reissue of a waste-water permit at the Chesterfield Power Station, the largest fossil-fueled power plant in Dominion Virginia Power’s generating fleet. Among other features, the permit covers the de-watering of coal ash as the utility moves toward a long-term disposal of the potentially toxic coal-combustion byproduct.
The permit incorporates treatment processes approved for the de-watering of coal ash at Dominion’s Bremo and Possum Point power stations, reached after extensive negotiation between the company, environmental groups and the Department of Environmental Quality.
Cathy Taylor, Dominion’s senior environmental and sustainability advisor, said the $80 million investment in waste-water control sets “new stringent limits” on the level of potentially toxic heavy metals that can be released into the James River. “We’re committed to doing this right. We live here, too, and want to ensure our neighbors and the community know exactly what we’re doing, when we’re doing it, and why.”
In a statement during the permit hearing, Brad McLane, an attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center pressed for even tighter limits, especially on arsenic. The 6-to-0 vote to approve the permit with only minor changes was disappointing, he said after the vote.
“We proposed common-sense revisions to the Chesterfield water discharge permit, including an expedited implementation of newly-required pollution controls (from a 4-to-6 year time frame to a 2-year time frame), and an expedited process to address thermal pollution and water withdrawal impacts in the reasonable future instead of five years or more in the future,” McLane said. “Unfortunately, the Board rejected our proposed revisions and moved forward with the permit as recommended by DEQ with only one very minor change.”
The Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club was harsher. “The permit allows Dominion to use minimum requirements for thermal discharge and water intake, and allows for more stringent limits on toxic pollutants like arsenic and lead to be delayed until March 2022, rather than requiring Dominion to meet the federally suggested date of November 2018,” said Kate Addleson, director of the Sierra Club-Virginia Chapter. “We are concerned that DEQ is unjustifiably willing to bow to the wishes of corporate polluters like Dominion.”
The Chesterfield Power Station began operation in 1944. The coal- and gas-burning facility supplies about 12% of the electricity in Dominion’s service territory. Dominion has spent about $1 billion over the decade to meet tough air pollution standards designed to cut emissions of mercury, nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide. Now the company expects to spend another $80 million to upgrade its industrial wastewater treatment.
The plan involves closing two coal ash ponds where the company deposited the residue from coal combustion, and converting to a “dry ash management” system. The old way of handling coal ash was to mix with water to prevent it from blowing away. That method raised concerns that heavy metals could leach from the coal ash into the water, and eventually into underground water supplies or rivers and streams. The Environmental Protection Agency has mandated all electric utilities de-water their coal ash ponds and dispose of the residue safely.
Dominion tackled coal ash disposal at its Bremo and Possum Point power stations first. After considerable controversy, the Bremo transition has gone so smoothly that McLane was moved to say, “Dominion has established a strong track record of effective treatment of these waters over the last several months. In our view, this is absolutely a good thing.”
Dominion has adopted the Bremo template for treating coal ash at the Chesterfield facility. But de-watering is only the first step. State regulators still have to approve a permit for the disposal of the dry coal ash.
Dominion’s Taylor described the ultimate disposition of the coal ponds this way:
Chesterfield is unique because unlike the other generation stations where we are closing coal ash ponds in Virginia, we continue to burn coal at this station. Dominion is constructing a new onsite state-of-the-art lined landfill to safety manage future ash that is generated. The conversion to dry ash management will result in the elimination of future wastewater discharges associated with the station’s coal ash ponds and a reduction in the station’s water requirements by over 5 million gallons per day. Only after the new state-of-the-art landfill is constructed can we begin closing the ash ponds.
Environmental groups also were disappointed that the permit does not immediately address the issue of thermal pollution, a potential threat to endangered sturgeon. The James River Association has measured water temperatures near the Chesterfield outlet at 105 degrees Fahrenheit, high enough to kill fish, destroy habitat, cause algae blooms and reduce dissolved oxygen levels, said Nate Benforado with the SELC. The permit requires Dominion to study the water intake and discharge issues, but the company doesn’t have to provide DEQ the findings until 270 days before the expiration of the permit.