Category Archives: Environment

Once in Four Lifetimes

virginia_fishThe conservative assumptions behind Virginia water-discharge permits, says DEQ, reduce the odds of harming aquatic wildlife to fewer than three incidents in a thousand years.

by James A. Bacon

Earlier this year Dominion Virginia Power was granted permits to drain water from coal ash ponds at its Bremo and Possum Point power stations, treat the water to remove heavy metals, and discharge the effluent into the James River and Quantico Creek. Citizens have understandable concerns. What limits did DEQ place on the heavy metals in the wastewater? How were the limits determined? And what assurances do Virginians have that those limits will safeguard the public health and the health of aquatic species?

In a nod to transparency, Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has posted the permits online. To get a flavor, you can view the Virginia Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (VPDES) permit for the Bremo Power station here. Unfortunately, that document is indecipherable to the layman. DEQ permit writers live in a world all their own, replete with jargon, acronyms, arcane regulatory procedures and complex statistical formulations that only DEQ, power companies and the environmentalist groups that sue them seem to understand.

Wondering how DEQ set the heavy metals limits listed in its permits, from arsenic and mercury to lead and selenium, I sat down recently with Fred Cunningham, DEQ’s manager-office of water permits, and Allan Brockenbrough, manager-VPDES permits. The two career DEQ employees walked me through the process. Because the Possum Point permit is under appeal, they did not address the coal-ash permits specifically. But they said that the procedures for apply to all industrial sites, including power stations with coal ash ponds.

The primary message they wished to convey is this: DEQ permits create an ample safety buffer. Accounting for just two of the conservative assumptions built into the process, say Cunningham and Brockenbrough, the chances of a scenario occurring that endangers either the public health or aquatic life are in the realm of thrice every thousand years. The incorporation of other conservative assumptions reduces that incidence even further.

Brockenbrough put it this way: “When you make one conservative assumption, and a second, and a third, and a fourth, they all build on each other.”


Heavy metal discharge limits in Dominion’s Bremo permit

Virginia environmentalists active in the coal ash debate have not taken issue with the DEQ methodology, which they neither criticize nor endorse. Their main thrust has been to ensure that wastewater is monitored and tested with sufficient frequency and duration to make the public comfortable that Water Quality Standards are being met. Also, in the case of Possum Point permit, the Potomac Riverkeeper Network has appealed on the grounds that Dominion should employ Best Available Technology, even if the resulting water quality exceeds DEQ standards. If Virginia can reduce at reasonable cost the level of pollutants released into Virginia waters, even if they exist only in trace elements, why not do it?

By contrast, John Craynon, director-environmental programs at Virginia Tech’s Center for Coal and Energy Research, says, “Our standards are very conservative. … I think the DEQ has proposed a standard that is protective and does not put an undue burden on all of us.” Just because we are capable of detecting the presence of heavy metals in parts per trillion does not mean we should regulate them at that level. Trace amounts of these elements exist in the environment and organisms have evolved to co-exist with them. Compelling industry to reduce levels even further is an exercise in diminishing returns. “Is it worth it? Some would say yes. I do a running cost-benefit analysis in my head.”

The federal Environmental Protection Agency sets the legal framework for administering the Clean Water Act, and DEQ operates within that framework. Based on the latest scientific knowledge, EPA continually updates federal water quality standards for some 130 different constituents including heavy metals, organic compounds and pesticides known to pose a threat to the health of humans and aquatic creatures. It is DEQ’s job to apply these standards to specific situations when writing permits.

DEQ determines a safe level for each constituent (measured either in micrograms per liter, or parts per billion) for three criteria: acute (short-term) impact on aquatic organisms, chronic (long-term) impact on aquatic organisms, and human health impact. In the first of many conservative safeguards, DEQ applies the most restrictive of the three numbers, even if that level provides more protection than is deemed essential for the other two.

Another conservative assumption DEQ builds into its permits is its “return interval” — the period of time over which a one-time, worst-case scenario is evaluated. The Water Quality Standards approved by EPA allow for instream standards to be exceeded once every three years. DEQ uses a ten-year interval when setting standards.

As translated into the permits for Bremo, DEQ’s discharge limits will protect the river water outside a mixing zone no larger than 16 feet wide and 2,000 feet long (about 1/3 of an acre) in the worst drought scenario predicted for a ten-year period. The vast majority of time, the area within the mixing zone where pollutants exceed Water Quality Standards will be much smaller — at times undetectable — although DEQ does not calculate how large it will be in any circumstance except the 10-year, worst-case scenario. Continue reading

Coal’s Messy End Game

coal_minersby James A. Bacon

The U.S. coal industry is in collapse. Market forces in the form of cheap, abundant natural gas have put coal at a huge competitive disadvantage while environmental initiatives have gutted demand by compelling the shutdown of coal-fired power plants not worth retrofitting with scrubbers. Earlier this week Peabody Energy, the largest coal producer in the country, announced that it would seek bankruptcy protection. Only one company in the Dow Jones Coal Index, Consol Energy, has avoided that fate.

Writing in Slate Magazine, Daniel Gross poses an interesting question:

When companies file for bankruptcy, the fact that they can’t meet their obligations to creditors like banks or bondholders isn’t that much of an issue. They can absorb the loss and wind up with ownership of the company. But bankrupt coal firms will have a hard time meeting their obligations to the environment, to employees, and to retirees. Which means they will either need a bailout or they will suffer further obloquy when they walk away from commitments.

Coal mining in Central Appalachia is an immensely destructive business, especially strip mining and mountaintop removal, which quite literally moves mountains, alters drainage flows, and releases potentially toxic elements into the water. Federal regulations require coal companies to stabilize the land in order to reduce environmental hazards. When coal was booming a few years ago, that wasn’t a problem. With major coal companies going bankrupt, there are growing questions whether coal companies can fulfill their obligations.

Virginia-based Alpha Natural Resources has $640 million in self-guaranteed liabilities in reclamation costs, reports the Washington Post. Will a western Virginia bankruptcy court judge honor the debts of creditors and suppliers or obligations to the public?

Meanwhile, coal industry pension funds, which have always been shaky, now are in deep doo-doo. The United Mine Workers of America’s 1974 pension plan was said last year to be $2 billion under-funded.  The plan asked for participating unionized companies to increase their contribution by 10% to $6.05 per union employee per hour worked, along with benefit cuts for future employees. But it is questionable how long bankrupt coal companies can sustain such payments. Who, if anyone, will make good promises made to retired coal miners?

Bacon’s bottom line. Coal is a dirty, unsafe fuel, and most of us won’t miss it. But the transition to a clean-energy economy will be messy. For Virginia’s coalfield region, the demise of the coal industry doesn’t mean just the loss of jobs, as debilitating as that will be. It could well mean environmental clean-ups never completed and pensions never paid.

No Consensus on Clean Power Plan, but McAuliffe Cutting CO2 Emissions by Other Means

David K. Paylor

David K. Paylor

After five meetings of stakeholders to discuss the best way to implement the Clean Power Plan, “there is no consensus” on how to proceed, said David K. Paylor, director of Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality earlier today. “What works for some people doesn’t work for others.”

On the positive side, it looks like Virginia may have plenty of time to figure out the best approach. A legal appeal by 25 states to block the plan likely will end up decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, but probably not this year. Virginia will use the time “to get smarter,” Paylor said at the Virginia Power Dialog, a conclave of Virginia college students held at the University of Richmond and Virginia Commonwealth University.

A virtue of the Clean Power Plan, said Paylor, is its flexibility. States can choose between three broad approaches: setting CO2 emission targets by rate (CO2 emitted per unit of electric power), by total volume of CO2 emitted from existing power plants, or by total volume of CO2 emitted from both existing and new facilities. Each has different implications for CO2 reduction, rate impact and reliability of service, and each offers pros and cons for different stakeholders including electric utilities, independent power producers, energy consumers, and environmentalists.

While goals vary by state, depending upon their energy mix, the national goal is to achieve a 30% reduction in 2005-level CO2 emissions by 2030. Because of Virginia’s aggressive shift from coal to natural gas over the past decade, the state had already achieved a 30% reduction by 2014. Environmental groups are pushing an approach that would achieve much bigger reductions.

Angela Navarro

Angela Navarro

While the legal fate of the Clean Power Plan is uncertain, the McAuliffe administration is backing a broad array of measures to promote energy efficiency and renewable energy, said Angela Navarro, deputy secretary of Natural Resources. Among a half-dozen initiatives she mentioned, the state has set a goal of cutting energy consumption in state facilities 15% by 2017.

The administration wants to “lead by example,” she said. State procurement policies can build the market by generating demand for conservation and renewable electricity. Ideally, growing demand will induce suppliers and manufacturers to set up shop here. “The governor’s dream,” she said, “is for solar manufacturers to locate in Virginia and to have for solar panels stamped with ‘Made in Virginia.'”


Coal Ash Mishmash

Location of coal ash ponds and proximity to Virginia rivers. Map credit: Southern Environmental Law Center

Location of coal ash ponds and proximity to Virginia rivers. Map credit: Southern Environmental Law Center. (Click for larger image.)

Dominion has narrowed its differences with environmental groups over how to dispose of coal ash, but the conflict is not easily resolved, and uncertainty about the final outcome prevails.

by James A. Bacon

Dominion Virginia Power has settled disagreements with two foes over its plans to discharge coal ash wastewater from its Possum Point and Bremo power stations into Virginia’s rivers and streams, but the battle over coal ash disposal isn’t going away. Not only are the state of Maryland and the Potomac Riverkeeper Network appealing the wastewater-discharge permit for Possum Point, but Dominion still must acquire solid-waste permits for both plants.

Also, within the next year or so, Dominion will file permit applications for its legacy coal ash ponds at Chesterfield Power Station, while Appalachian Power Co. plans to close and cap an ash pond at its Clinch River Power Station. Determined to hold the power companies to the strictest standards possible, environmentalists have vowed to scrutinize each permit.

While coal ash promises to be a contentious issue over the next year or two, differences between Dominion and its opponents have narrowed. By settling its wastewater discharge issues with Prince William County and the James River Association, the utility has created a model that could be applied to the Chesterfield Power Station and elsewhere.

“The permit is incredibly protective,” says Jason Williams, Dominion’s environmental manager in charge of coal ash. “We will be well below the [heavy metal] limits on everything.” The odds of aquatic life being negatively impacted are so low, he says, they are “off the charts.”

While the settlement doesn’t accomplish everything environmentalists would like, James River Association CEO Bill Street says it represents an important, positive development. “We think that [the Bremo Power Station settlement] will serve as the basis for going forward. It shows what’s possible.”

Problems remain. Dominion has not managed to settle with the Potomac Riverkeeper Network for discharges into Quantico Creek. “That waterway is already stressed by decades of metals pollution,” explains Greg Buppert, the attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) who is appealing the permit on behalf of the network. The waterway is more impaired than the James River, he says.

Meanwhile, environmentalists worry that Dominion’s plans for consolidating coal ash on site and capping it with an impermeable liner is a partial and inadequate solution for the long-term storage of the material. Dominion, they say, needs to prevent coal ash from being polluted by excavating the coal ash and moving it to a safe landfill away from waterways.

Coal ash is the residue from the combustion of coal. For decades, power companies put this mineral waste product into holding ponds and mixed it with water to keep down the dust. The resulting slurry contained heavy metals from the coal ash such as arsenic, cadmium, mercury and selenium, which in high concentrations can be toxic to aquatic life. After a calamitous 2008 spill in Tennessee, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) developed regulations, which went into effect in October 2015, to reduce harm from coal-ash ponds across the country. Electric utilities have the option of recycling the ash (typically using it as a component of cement), trucking the ash to a landfill, capping the ponds so rainwater cannot percolate through, or capping with additional measures. Whichever strategy is chosen, the ash must be de-watered first.

In Virginia the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) writes the permits, based on its analysis of what it takes to meet or exceed EPA standards for some 130 different constituents according to three criteria: acute toxicity of aquatic species, chronic toxicity for aquatic species, and human health in Virginia waters. Although the wastewater-discharge permits the agency drafted for Dominion’s Possum Point and Bremo operations are stricter than EPA minimums for some constituents, they were not rigorous enough to satisfy environmentalists. Clamoring for tighter restrictions of heavy metals and more rigorous testing, riverkeeper groups for both the Potomac and James appealed both permits.

Potentially billions of dollars are at stake. Dominion contends that its plan for de-watering, consolidating and capping its coal ash ponds will cost ratepayers an estimated $500 million. Meeting the environmentalists’ demands to truck the dry coal ash to landfills lined with impermeable plastic would cost an additional $3 billion — a massive sum that the company says buys little in the way of improved environmental quality.

To environmentalists, short-term costs are secondary. Bill Street, CEO of the James River Association, concedes that $3 billion would be a “hefty” price tag for a clean-up. “But look at what the James River supports. This is a long-term decision we’re making,” he says. “Futurists talk about water as the defining issue of the 21st century, defining the wealth of nations. It is critical that we manage our water resources wisely. The James River can be our greatest global competitive advantage.”

De-Watering the Coal Ash

EPA enacted its new rules for coal ash ponds in late 2015. Using the EPA limits for each constituent as a floor, Virginia’s DEQ drafted its own approach to applying those standards in the unique circumstances at each site. After conversing with environmental groups, DEQ added several measures to strengthen the rules, especially in the area of testing and monitoring.

Dominion followed quickly by filing for permits to cover its Bremo and Possum Point power stations. In its applications, the company submitted Concept Engineering Reports that described how it planned to treat water from the coal ash ponds before discharging it into Quantico Creek and the James River. Water would be drained from the ponds and run through a series of steps, including aeration, Ph adjustment, coagulant/flocculant mixing, clarifying and settling, filtering, metals adsorption (if needed) and more Ph adjustment. At the end of the process, the water would be held in holding tanks where it would be tested on a regular basis for individual constituents such as heavy metals. In addition, recognizing that multiple chemical might act synergistically, Dominion will immerse minnows and water fleas to test the overall effect. Continue reading

Hysteria Level Rising over Coal Ash

hysteriaThe debate over coal ash disposal is reaching a hysterical pitch as leftist groups peddle gross inaccuracies in “education” sessions to ignorant audiences not equipped to sift fact from fiction. An example comes from a Tuesday “teach in” hosted by Divest U.Va. and the Virginia Student Environmental Coalition, which was reported uncritically by the Cavalier Daily:

“Coal ash contains chemicals that are super unsafe for humans, including arsenic, which is not a healthy thing to be putting into our water,” [first-year student Ian] Ware said. “You shouldn’t be putting arsenic and drinking water together.”

Nobody proposes putting arsenic and drinking water together. Yes, coal ash does contain trace elements of arsenic measured in parts per billion but (a) Dominion Virginia Power will reduce arsenic to levels lower than the Environmental Protection Agency has determined to be safe for humans and aquatic life at the point of discharge into the river except under extreme drought conditions, (b) Dominion’s treated wastewater will be diluted by about 3,000 times the volume of river water during periods of average flow in the James River before it reaches a drinking water intake 50 miles downstream, (c) Dominion will release treated wastewater into the river for a period of roughly a year, while standards are set at levels that presuppose that people will consume the water over a 70-year life span as their sole source of drinking water, and (d) water drawn from the river undergoes municipal water treatment before anyone drinks it.

Other than that, the statement was entirely reasonable.


Dominion OK with Clean Power Plan

Dominion's Warren County, Va., natural gas plan.

Dominion’s Warren County, Va., natural gas plan.

Dominion Virginia Power filed an amicus brief Friday in the national lawsuit against the Clean Power Plan arguing that “compliance is feasible.”

While the brief wasn’t a full-throated endorsement of the Obama administration plan, Dominion, parent company of Dominion Virginia Power, did not join opponents in trying to derail it. The lawsuit, which challenges the constitutionality of the plan, is expected to be reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court. In Dominion’s view, reports Travis Fain with the Daily Press, Clean Power Plan rules are consistent with the industry shift, already underway, to replace coal with natural gas and renewable fuels. The state-by-state implementation created by the plan provides considerable flexibility. Wrote Dominion:

Petitioners suggest that the impacts of the rule will result in ‘higher rates and less reliable electricity’ for consumers. Because of the key compliance flexibilities highlighted above, Dominion does not agree that the Rule will necessarily result in such disruptive effects to the power sector and its consumers.

Bacon’s translation: Yes, the plan will cost Virginians billions of dollars to implement, but it will not impact the reliability of electric power.

Reading between the lines: The Clean Power Plan will not hurt Dominion Virginia Power, which has been repositioning itself away from coal for a decade now.

Dominion Resources, parent company of the regulated utility, has committed itself to a natural gas-oriented strategy, acquiring major gas pipeline assets in western states and proposing construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline to markets in Virginia and North Carolina. Dominion Virginia Power also has moved aggressively to expand its portfolio of gas-fired power stations. Both the parent company and subsidiary have upped their commitment to renewable energy sources, though on a smaller scale.

Fain quotes Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) attorney Will Cleveland as saying that much of the work of reducing carbon-dioxide emissions at Virginia power plants is either done or is underway. “For them to say it publicly, I think, is great for the rule,” Cleveland said. “In many ways, I felt I could have written this brief.”

Virginia opposition to the plan has come mainly from Republicans, who (a) don’t share the underlying premise that the nation needs to restructure its electric power industry to combat the threat of climate change, and (b) are concerned about the impact on ratepayers and Virginia’s economic competitiveness. Dominion has studiously avoided entering the partisan fray.

Update: Here is a link to the amicus brief.


SCC Approves Greensville Gas Plant

The Greensville power station will use technology similar to that used in Dominion's combined-cycle natural gas plant in Brunswick County, pictured here.

The Greensville power station will use technology similar to that used in Dominion’s combined-cycle natural gas plant in Brunswick County, pictured here.

by James A. Bacon

The State Corporation Commission (SCC) approved yesterday Dominion Virginia Power’s filing to build a $1.3 billion natural gas-powered power station in Greensville County. The power station will generate 1,588 megawatts of electricity, upping Dominion’s reliance on natural gas to 39% of its energy mix by 2020.

Construction, expected to begin later this year, is expected to be complete by 2019. The project will create roughly 1,0o0 construction jobs and 45 full-time positions, and it will generate $8 million a year in property taxes for Greensville County.

In approving the project, the SCC rejected the arguments of environmental groups that Dominion had failed to properly consider third-party alternatives for obtaining the electricity or alternatives such as energy efficiency, solar energy, a combined gas/solar hybrid facility or a portfolio approach. “The company’s choice of a natural gas facility appears prudent given the current natural gas market and forecasted gas prices,” stated the SCC in its final order.

Dominion said that customers will save $2.1 billion over the life of the power station through fuel savings compared to the project cost of purchasing electricity in the open market. Said Paul Koonce, CEO of Dominion Generation group: “This project will ultimately bring low cost, reliable energy to our customers … in addition to providing a major economic impact and good paying jobs for Southside Virginia.”

The Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club, which opposed the filing, has not published a response on its website.

Bacon’s bottom line: To my mind, the most interesting question regarding the $1.3 billion investment is whether Dominion should be committing itself to a fixed, multi-decadal investment in an era in which the cost of solar energy continues to decline. Natural gas prices are incredibly low right now, and probably will continue to be for several years, but there are reasonable grounds for wondering if prices could rise sharply, as they have in the past, as a slew of proposed gas pipelines and gas liquefaction facilities start connecting the Marcellus and Utica gasfields to new markets, including those overseas.

Dominion is building a combined-cycle gas plant, which uses waste heat from the gas turbine to power a steam turbine, producing up to 50% more electricity from the same amount of fuel. With low gas prices, the economics are hard to beat at present. Assuming the Greensville plant runs most of the time, as it is designed to do, it will produce electricity far more cheaply than an industrial-scale solar facility, which generates no electricity when the sun goes down, and suffers diminished output in cloudy conditions.

The SCC found that Dominion had taken “serious and credible efforts to assess the cost and availability of third-party alternatives.” The company had issued an RFP and evaluated 5,000 megawatts of fully dispatchable, baseload or intermediate generation resources.

“We find that the Company’s RFP to be adequate for purposes of this proceeding,” states the SCC ruling. “Moreover, the Project was also compared to multiple unsolicited offers for solar, wind, landfill gas, and coal resources that were received outside of the RFP.”