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.

To determine the maximum level of pollutants in a discharge, DEQ uses a computer model into which it plugs a wide range of variables. These include temperature, pH, ammonia, river flow, discharge flow, and, perhaps most unappreciated by the public, “hardness,” or the availability of calcium carbonate, which buffers the impact of many heavy metals on aquatic life. DEQ sets Water Quality Standards to protect biological traits of the stretch of water in question: not just the presence of presence of aquatic species but of fish eggs, larvae, and other early-stage life forms. Permit writers crank in the river/stream water flow at various critical levels and the maximum volume of discharge to determine the effluent limits needed to protect the stream.

Another conservative assumption DEQ uses to set limits is that Dominion (or any other permit holder) will discharge water at the maximum permitted level, even though discharges typically vary. Similarly, DEQ assumes that the discharges will proceed into the indefinite future, even though Dominion has stated that it will take only nine months to a year to drain the coal ponds, at which point there will be no more water to discharge.

Perhaps the most conservative assumption in DEQ’s analysis is a statistically derived assumption used to set the Waste Load Allocation for each constituent. In that procedure, DEQ must conduct a “reasonable potential” analysis, which determines whether a certain level of discharge water has a reasonable potential to exceed the water quality limit in the river or stream. DEQ assumes that the effluent concentration exceeds the value only 3% of the time and is below the value 97% of the time.

Combining that 97% criteria with a 10-year low-flow assumption creates a huge safety margin, says Brockenbrough. “We’re assuming an extremely high pollutant concentration and an extremely low river flow to evaluate a worst case scenario. If the instream water quality standard is exceeded under that extreme combination of events (which occurs 1/333 years) then ‘reasonable potential’ is assumed to exist and a limit is placed on the discharge.”

Cobble on the other conservative assumptions, and the risk of exceeding safe levels for aquatic health become improbably remote — once in four or five life-times — and the risk for exceeding human safety levels too small to be meaningful.

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12 responses to “Once in Four Lifetimes

  1. So, here’s the philosophical question: Is a once-every-330 years risk of a bad incident safe enough when you consider that the wastewater discharge will last for approximately one year? (Actually, the chances are arguably less than that due to other assumptions upon which it is difficult to assign a statistical risk value.) Should society insist upon a close-to-zero risk, and if so, what is the cost?

  2. Wait a minute – you’re relying on what scientists say?

    you’ve already opined that they’re a bunch of lying butts… right?


    oh – an the Coal and Energy folks at Va Tech – isn’t that the same group that wrote the totally bogus analysis of CPP that the SCC adopted as truth and went ape-crap over and subsequently UVA folks completely destroyed the methodology? You trust those folks on Coal issues? Not me… I think they’ve proven they are co-opted by the industry. Sorta proves that money can indeed buy bad science.

    So you’ve given Dominion and Va DEQ side of this -how about doing the same with Maryland’s DEQ and see how the two compare and why Maryland is not on board with our “Conservative” approach?

  3. Jim, you are right that “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.”

    We love the out-of-doors. We also want a vibrant economy to give people jobs. Environmental regulation tries to pin down with a single number a qualitative, subjective evaluation of dozens of distinct measurements of “quality” where the goals are wildly different depending upon one’s perspective: nature, scenic beauty, public health, transportation, commerce, to name a few. What’s more, the legislation contains vague terms like “best available technology” that mean wildly different things to different people (read, well-funded interest groups). And a “clean environment” is a moving target, as health science evolves. We all know that adds up to litigation, delay, lowest-common-denominator decisionmaking, and all too often a complete jettisoning of common sense.

    So, Larry wants to see how a different state, Maryland, weighs all this and comes up with a different answer. Why not just move on?

    Now, imagine you’re a small businessman caught up in this. You simply want someone to give you certain guidance you can act on. Instead, you get endless crap thrown at you. For what? In this case, for trying to clean up the ash pond made to comply with past environmental regulations! Is it any wonder that so many businesses just walk away bankrupt, or bury the past and walk away and hope people will forget, rather than deal with their particular legacy of toxic waste and the endless turmoil and infinite cost exposure of “cleaning it up”?

    This is passing the buck. With the worst sort of outcome for the environment: utter failure to get things cleaned up consistently and thoroughly.

  4. Maryland might be indirectly helpful, but they do not have any coal ash ponds. For some reason, that technique starts in Virginia and goes on down to Florida, and west out to Kentucky or thereabouts. I had hoped MD might be a helpful partner but I am afraid there is also potential for obstruction from MD.

    I see DEQ is having a public hearing on this topic in the western part of the state (Appalachian Power territory). Reportedly trying to communicate better in view of the controversy in this part of the state.

  5. @Tbill – do they not burn coal up north?

    I would assume they do…. what do they do with the ash?

    @Acbar – re: “moving on”, “going bankrupt”,

    I consider ANY business that pollutes air, land and water that they do not own – even if they are providing a valuable service – RESPONSIBLE.

    If they can’t do it without polluting then whose call is it?

    There is a REASON WHY – it is called a PERMIT.

    back to Tbill –

    just a quick search found this:




  6. @Tbill – do they not burn coal up north?

    I would assume they do…. what do they do with the ash?

    @Acbar – re: “moving on”, “going bankrupt”,

    I consider ANY business that pollutes air, land and water that they do not own – even if they are providing a valuable service – RESPONSIBLE.

    If they can’t do it without polluting then whose call is it?

    There is a REASON WHY – it is called a PERMIT.

  7. just a quick search found this:



  8. re: ” So, Larry wants to see how a different state, Maryland, weighs all this and comes up with a different answer. Why not just move on?”

    Maybe my point is missed.

    It seems as if Jim purposely decided to get the views of the folks that supported Dominion.

    since he did decide to do that – why not also find out why Maryland is not of the same view?

    that would be reasonable and balanced…. right?

    in terms of understanding the NPDES world – I think if one is going to weigh in on the issue – and one is not inclined to learn on their own about it – that the objective path is to find out by asking those who have no dog in that hunt rather than ask the folks who have taken a position defending – THEIR interpretation which may not be totally objective.

    Finally – to tweak those who have questioned “science” recently – let me also point out that the threshold levels of what is considered “ok” or not is – science and I suppose it would be just as easy for someone to publish a study that questioned these EPA-set thresholds.. that everyone seems to accept as gospel…

    where are the NPDES “skeptics” here? Why do you folks trust the EPA on these toxic metal numbers when you don’t trust them on the CPP and other science for ‘Climate” and Fat and sugar?

    do ya’ll just pick and choose what science you want to believe or not – or is there some kind of criteria that guides the skeptics in determining who is lying and who is involved in conspiracies to fool people on the “science”?

    just wondering… it seems kind of arbitrary at this point… some science is totally bogus … just stuff put out so they can get more grant money …and other science is the truth from on high – like that used for toxic metals in coal ash…

    • It seems as if Jim purposely decided to get the views of the folks that supported Dominion.

      No, Larry, Jim purposely decided to get the view of DEQ. No Virginia journalist has yet explained how DEQ sets the water quality standards for the coal ash permits, and no journalist has asked what are the environmental risks associated with those standards, so I thought I would ask DEQ. Dominion has no authoritative knowledge on how the standards are set. The environmentalists have no authoritative knowledge on how the standards are set. Only DEQ does.

      Now, as it happens, I did talk to SELC and the James River Association. They didn’t have much noteworthy to say about how DEQ sets the standards, so I didn’t give them a lot of digital ink..

      I asked Bill Street with the James River Association what he thought of the DEQ methodology. His response: “We have never walked through it in any depth. … We have not spotlighted any concerns with the DEQ methodology.”

      I asked Greg Buppert with SELC what he had to say. His response: “They’ve walked us through the methodology. It is quite complicated — that’s all I can say.” SELC’s complaint is not with how DEQ sets its standards but with its legal decision to adopt the standards-setting approach rather than the Best Available Technology approach, which I noted in the story.

      As for “picking and choosing” what science I want to believe or not, I have to comments:

      (1) I wasn’t picking and choosing anything. I was reporting what DEQ told me, not rendering judgment.

      (2) Picking and choosing sounds like what you do. You don’t even have to understand what the “other side” (as you have defined DEQ) is doing and saying. All you need to do is accuse it of bias — without offering any substantiation of your claim, I might add — and that’s enough for you. But that’s par for the course. You accept uncritically the findings of people whose findings you like, and then blast the biases of those whose conclusions you don’t like.

  9. Actually I want to hear all sides – including why Md has objections.

    we already know that Dominion agrees with DEQ – right?

    re: picking and choosing”

    what I’m pointing out – again – is that you’re taking the word of EPA and other scientists in terms of what the threshold levels of toxics ought to be rather than following your recent practice of questioning science on things like climate change and fat …. so why do you just accept the toxic data rather than questioning it since it was obviously an arbitrary process done by scientists – who worked for the govt no doubt.

    so that’s where the pick and choose comes from – how do you oppose climate science and “fat” science and accept toxic metal science ? what’s your criteria for which science you “pick” to believe and which you “choose” to view as bogus and promoted by the “hegemony”

    there’s LOTS to question about the toxic thresholds, right?

    I mean these guys just shoved those numbers right at you – and you treat them as if they are fact…. eh?

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