Regulations for cleaning up Virginia’s coal ash ponds are much stricter — and more expensive –than the old rules. But do the new standards do enough to protect water quality?
by James A. Bacon
Two years ago, few Virginians had any idea that coal ash posed a threat to the environment. Then in February 2014 a Duke Energy facility near Eden, N.C., spilled 39 tons of coal-ash slurry into the Dan River, which flowed downstream into Virginia. The incident alerted Virginians to the potential hazards of dozens of lightly regulated coal ash ponds in the Old Dominion. Now, as the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) implements new regulations to clean up those ponds, the disposal of this coal-combustion residue has become a front-burner issue.
The new rules require power companies to drain the ash ponds of water and cap them to prevent rain water from percolating through. The water must be treated to remove heavy metals mixed with the ash, and it must be tested to ensure it meets DEQ standards before it is released into the river.
But when Dominion Virginia Power applied for permits to treat the water from coal-ash ponds at its Possum Point facility on Quantico Creek and its Bremo plant on the James River, scores of citizens appeared at the public hearings last month to express opposition. Corey Stewart, chairman of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors, excoriated Dominion and DEQ. “They don’t care about the public or anything other than the bottom line,” he said of Dominion. “As a county, our first duty is to protect public safety, and Dominion isn’t doing that, in collusion with the state government.”
Dominion and DEQ defend the new rules and water permits, which they say are far stricter than the old regulations, tougher than the minimum standards mandated by the EPA, and tighter in some ways than the standards enacted in North Carolina, site of the Duke Energy spill.
“Dominion has a very comprehensive and robust plan to clean up the environment,” said Dominion spokesman David Botkins. “Our plan and the permits being issued are some of the most stringent ever issued by DEQ on this type of thing. The water discharge portion will be safe and not harmful or dangerous in any way to human, animal or aquatic life.”
Although the measures are tighter than the old ones, environmentalists say they fall short of what’s needed. The Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) advocates moving excavating the coal ash and moving it to dry, clay-lined storage away from the river.
As for the permits approved by the State Water Control Board for Possums Point and Bremo, they create a toxic “mixing zone” where the treated coal-ash water enters the river and could send toxic plumes downstream in low-water conditions. Under the worst 10-year drought scenario at Dominion’s Bremo facility, says SELC attorney Brad McLane, the release of treated water could create a plume 16 feet wide, 2,000 feet long, and toxic enough to kill aquatic life.
McLane would like to see tighter restrictions on mercury and arsenic levels in the discharge so that river water never exceeds safe levels. And in addition to testing the treated coal ash water before it’s discharged, he’d like Dominion to test water quality in the river itself. “The mixing zone is an area of the river where the water is allowed to be toxic,” he says. “Dominion will not be required to shut down operations if the water in the mixing zone falls below standards, only if the concentrations are high enough that water outside the mixing zone dimensions violates standards.”
DEQ spokesman Bill Hayden minimizes the threat. “The permit limits the size of the plume to the greatest extent possible. It’s very unlikely that those [unsafe] conditions will be met. It’s theoretically possible, but it won’t be a common occurrence. It would require a very low flow. Our position is that [the permit] would allow the standards to be met the vast majority of the time.”
(There is a separate issue issue regarding the Possums Point permit, where DEQ allowed Dominion to keep a “toe” drain, the purpose of which is to divert storm and ground water from the coal ash ponds. The Potomac Riverkeeper Network charges that the drain has been discharging contaminated water. Dominion says its tests show that water from the drain is comparable to background groundwater.) Continue reading