by James A. Bacon
State regulators have taken heat recently for permits they issued Dominion Virginia Power to release treated wastewater from coal-ash ponds into the James River and Quantico Creek. The controversy has played out in the news as the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) filed an appeal to contest the permit and as protesters organized by No ACP rallied at Capitol Square to protest the “dumping” of “toxic” water into Virginia rivers.
SELC and No ACP are very different organizations, and they are demanding very different things. The main concern of the SELC, a mainstream environmental organization, is to ensure that treated wastewater released into Virginia waters meets the “fishable/swimmable” standard that protects aquatic life. The protesters, organized by local activist groups No ACP, Collective X and Richmond Resistance, want to hold Dominion and other utilities to a far stricter — and, arguably, entirely inappropriate — “drinkable” standard.
It’s easy for the public to conflate the two as part of a general critique of big utilities and compliant regulators allowing the dumping of toxic pollution into Virginia waters. But that would be a huge mistake. Agree or disagree with their legal case, the SELC attorneys understand the issues at stake. By contrast, the activists’ mastery of the subject matter does not appear to exceed what they can write on placards and chant in slogans.
I will deal with the activists’ argument in this post so I can delve more deeply into the SELC case against the wastewater permits later.
According to the No ACP press release, the protesters’ demands are simple — “an immediate repeal of recent permits that would allow Dominion Power to dump millions of gallons of toxic coal ash wastewater into Virginia’s most treasured waterways.”
What standards should Dominion meet? “DEQ must rewrite these permits to require the use of best available technology and that the water be treated to undetectable levels of arsenic and other toxins before disposal,” states the press release. Speaking to the Times-Dispatch, protest organizer Tatiane McCormick made much the same point: The permits should be rewritten to require Dominion to discharge water into the rivers only if it meets (to use the T-D‘s words) “drinking water standards.” (No ACP did not respond to a Bacon’s Rebellion request for an interview.)
A refresher: Coal ash is the residue from the combustion of coal. Dominion, Appalachian Power Co. and large industrial companies have been impounding the material, which contains heavy metals such as arsenic, mercury, and cadmium, in large containment ponds for many years. Because the metals are typically chemically bound with clays and glasses, not free-floating, they are largely inert, which is why the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does not classify coal ash as a hazardous waste.
Dominion, the first company in Virginia to respond to the new standards, plans to drain the water from the ponds and then cap them in order to prevent rainwater from percolating through. Dominion will treat the water in a multi-staged clean-up process before releasing it into the river. The DEQ permit allows the water to exceed safe levels at the point of entry into the river, relying upon dilution with river water to keep it within prescribed limits.
The state has two types of regulatory standards: one for drinking water, and one for fishable/swimmable water. Power plants and manufacturers are required to meet the fishable/swimmable standard for any effluent they release into rivers and streams. Under the U.S. regulatory regime, it is up to municipal water treatment plants, not power plants and manufacturers, to bring river water up to the drinking water standard, and they have invested billions of dollars in treatment facilities to do so.
Under its permit, Dominion will release a maximum of 1,500 gallons per minute of treated wastewater into the river, says Jason Williams, an environmental manager for the utility. River flow varies depending upon weather conditions, but on the day Williams spoke to Bacon’s Rebellion, it was running about 13.7 million gallons per minute. “If you treated the [coal ash] wastewater to drinking water quality,” says Williams, “it would immediately be rendered undrinkable by mixing with the river water.”
John R. Craynon, who manages the Appalachian Research Initiative for Environmental Science (ARIES) at Virginia Tech, makes the same point. (ARIES is funded by the coal industry but the industry has no say in the selection of research projects, says Craynon.) Treating wastewater to a drinking water standard would be very expensive and a waste of effort, he says. “The moment the drinking water hits the stream, it’s no longer of the same quality.”
Bottom line: Compelling Dominion and other utilities to treat coal ash wastewater to drinking water standards would accomplish nothing. It would not render the river water safe for human consumption. The real question is whether Dominion’s permit will enable it to meet the swimmable/fishable standards that protect aquatic life. The SELC would like the permit to tighten the restrictions on mercury and arsenic. We will examine that issue in a subsequent post.