Virginia Wallowing in Ignorance about Coal Ash

Coal ash at the Chesterfield Power Station. Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch

Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, has co-sponsored legislation that would require Dominion Energy to remove more than 25 million tons of coal ash from its Chesterfield, Bremo, Possum Point and Chesapeake power stations, reports the Chesterfield Observer.

Senate Bill 1398introduced by Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, applies to any owner or operator of a “coal combustion residuals unit.” The bill specifies that any coal ash stored in an unlined pond that is located within a half-mile of a floodplain or river must be excavated and disposed of either by recycling into cement or removal to a landfill.

The concern of environmentalists, residents living near the power plants, and many elected officials is that Dominion’s proposed solution — burying the coal ash on-site and capping it with an impermeable liner — will not prevent groundwater from seeping through the pits, picking up contaminants, and migrating into rivers and streams. Reinforcing their fears are the findings of riverkeeper groups of elevated levels in nearby groundwater and surface waters of potentially toxic heavy metals found in coal ash.

A Dominion-commissioned study by AECOM, an international engineering firm, found that Dominion’s proposed bury-in-place solution would cost between $480 million to $1.7 billion (not including judicial remedies ordered for the disposal of ash at the Chesapeake plant). By contrast, the most economic solution for removing and landfilling the coal ash would run about $4.15 billion. Critics say that AECOM overstated the cost of recycling and removal.

For all that has been written about coal ash disposal, there is much that we don’t know. Given the current state of knowledge (at least the knowledge that has seeped into the public policy debate), it’s hard to see how a rational, well-informed decision can be made.

There is one thing we can say for certain: contaminants from coal ash do leak in minute quantities into the groundwater, and groundwater does make its way into rivers and streams. Beyond that, there is very little certainty. Two questions arise: Does the contamination reach levels that are hazardous to human health (generally measured in a few parts per million)? Will Dominion’s proposed remedy of capping the coal ash piles reduce the level of contamination to safer levels?

Adjudicating a lawsuit filed by the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club against Dominion Energy Virginia for coal-ash pollution at Dominion’s Chesapeake plant, U.S. District Court Judge John Gibney found that (a) the coal ash ponds at Chesapeake did contaminate groundwater and the nearby Elizabeth River, but (b) the concentration of potentially toxic compounds was so low that it did not pose a threat to human health.

Heavy metals and other pollutants are often found naturally in groundwater, rivers and streams. Zero contaminants — the equivalent of distilled water — is neither necessary nor desirable. Some elements, such as zinc, are toxic at elevated levels but are necessary to sustain human and animal life in minute traces. The purpose of public policy should be to keep the concentration of these chemicals below the threshold at which they pose a threat to human and aquatic health — not to achieve zero contaminants.

Environmentalists have conducted tests in public waters near Dominion’s coal ash pits and have found non-safe levels of chemicals on numerous occasions. However, those tests reflect the condition of Dominion’s coal ash impoundments in their current form. Following standard industry practice, the utility buried the coal ash in multiple pits at each location and covered them with water to keep them from drying out and creating a dust problem. Rainwater falling on the water-laden pits created hydrostatic pressure that elevated the movement of water through the coal ash and increased the rate of contamination.

At each location, Dominion proposes to drain the water from the ponds, consolidate the near-dry coal ash into a single pit at each location, and cap the pit with a synthetic barrier. That barrier will prevent rainwater from reaching the coal ash and eliminate the main source of hydrostatic pressure. Also, in theory, the coal ash also will be buried above the water table, thus foreclosing the potential for groundwater to migrate through. In practice, however, as the Southern Environmental Law Center has shown from documents filed by Dominion, low-elevation portions of the Chesterfield impoundment will intersect with the water table. In other words, while most coal ash will be inert, a small portion will be exposed to the groundwater.

It should be within someone’s power to compute (a) the rate of flow of the groundwater, (b) the volume of water that will be exposed to coal ash, (c) the extent to which groundwater will pick up contaminants, (d) the volume and toxicity of groundwater that will reach rivers and streams, and (e) the resulting increase of potentially toxic chemicals in public waters. If the level of contamination in the River remains below Environmental Protection Agency thresholds, it makes little sense to spend billions of dollars to remove the material to a landfill. If the level of contamination exceeds safe levels, then action is justified.

The problem is that we don’t know the answer to the question. The Surovell-Chase bill presupposes that Dominion’s preferred, cheaper remedy would be inadequate. But we don’t know, and we can’t reach a judgment based on tests conducted during the old regulatory regime.

Environmental groups are arguing that utilities in North Carolina and South Carolina are pursuing the recycling and landfilling approach called for in the Surovell-Chase bill. If recycling/landfilling makes economic sense for them, they say, it should make sense for Virginia. That argument is buttressed by the testimony of companies offering to recycle as much as half of Dominion’s coal ash, some of it potentially at a profit to the utility.

AECOM examined four potential recycling technologies and concluded that Dominion couldn’t come close to recycling its coal ash at a profit. What the study did not do, as best I can tell, is determine whether it would be cheaper to recycle or load into a landfill. In other words, even if Dominion lost, say, $30 to $100 per ton through recycling, would that still be cheaper than trucking the coal ash to a landfill? The report did not make that calculation. Moreover, the report allows for a wide variation in costs. It makes a big difference if the cost of beneficiation (as the recycling process is called) at the Bremo station is $96 per ton or $217 per ton. Likewise, it makes a big difference if the coal ash sells for $30 a ton or $60 per ton. The AECOM discussion of recycling economics makes only the roughest of rough cuts. It does not provide enough data to make an informed decision.

The same can be said of the environmentalists who are critical of the AECOM report. We are told that Carolina utilities are recycling and landfilling their coal ash. But an obvious question arises: at what cost? The coal ash issue is even more emotional in North Carolina than in Virginia because North Carolina is where one of the nation’s worst coal ash spills occurred. Is Duke Energy under more intense judicial and political pressure to pursue the recycling/landfilling strategy to remedy its coal ash problem regardless of cost? The cost per ton of recycling/landfilling in North Carolina may be public information, but it hasn’t entered into the public discourse in Virginia.

The problem with the Surovell-Chase bill isn’t that it’s a bad bill. It’s that the public has no way of knowing whether it is a good bill or bad bill. We don’t have the data to make an informed decision. Perhaps the General Assembly should make it a priority to get that information before voting the bill up or down.

Update: Haha! Looks who’s wallowing in ignorance! Juliana Condrey informs me that SB 1398 was from the 2017 session.

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28 responses to “Virginia Wallowing in Ignorance about Coal Ash”

  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    We COULD KNOW MORE if Dominion was actually interested in finding out by funding and independent study that would better inform everyone.

    You ask why SOME contamination can’t be tolerated. I agree but how long are you willing to make that assumption? 10 years, 100 years? What happens if you are right for 10 years but at the 30 year mark – contamination starts increasing? What do you do then or is the idea that once we decide right now – we’ll no longer be monitoring or if we do monitor there is no plan in place to hold Dominion responsible if 50 years from now they were wrong?

    That’s the problem. “WE” have a long history of underestimating environmental damage and an equally long history of having no plan in place to hold responsible – the folks who made the coal piles and claimed by capping them there would be no contamination.

    How about we hold Dominion Responsible for the future contamination if it happens ??? A bond for that purpose – set aside so if they/we guessed wrong – we actually have a way to deal with it?

    Finally , I do not think a Judge has the expertise to determine whether the contamination levels are low.. much less that they will stay low for decades.

    That’s not his job. His job is the legal … based on what experts are testifying to – both Dominions and others weighing in.

    What we SHOULD NOT be doing is making a decision now and that decision absolves Dominion in the future – if we cap in place. They ARE responsible… not only now – but into the future. There are no free lunches on this. Someone will be on the hook in the future if we are wrong and it should NOT be taxpayers because if that’s the premise – then Dominion does have every reason to do a deal now then turn it over to taxpayers to deal with in the future.

    1. The only certain permanent solution is to make cinderblocks and pave roads with it. Now, if the State mandates, as the ‘default,’ removal and re-burial inland in lined, capped pits, putting pressure and a price-to-avoid on the utility for weighing alternatives, maybe there would be forward progress on this.

      1. Acbar I do not want my next house built out of Virginia coal waste cinder blocks. You are assuming that is environmentally sound recycling, and I am not so sure. In fact my house in NJ had bad cinder blocks with smelly inclusions that popped out. I think it’s either cap the waste, or excavate, outhaul and landfill, and I am staying away from the “special” cinder blocks if I can help it.

  2. As I recall, Dominion will be required to monitor the coal ash pits for 20 years. One can argue that that’s not enough time to gauge long-term effects. I would like to know if that figure was picked arbitrarily or whether there is a valid scientific justification for it.

  3. The biggest danger are the coal ash ponds or lakes that hold tremendous amount of water, and are at risk of catastrophically bursting and flooding. We do not have this situation, or if we d0, it should be fixed.

    We have dewatered coal waste mixture, possibly many of the toxics have long since leached out years ago, not sure. Have to do some digging and analyzing to answer that.

    Basically the litigants here are trying to suggest a new best practice should be that flood plain designation location automatically means that excavation and removal (always very expensive) is the only safe option. This is more severe than the Obama EPA which had a rule basically allowed the capping. But EPA and Congress have historically been lenient with the coal wastes…so perhaps there is some merit to a better standard. But I think somewhere a risk assessment comes in to rank the sites by damage potential.

  4. djrippert Avatar

    In the absence of math you sometimes have to use history instead.

    1. Dominion piled up millions of tons of coal ash they knew was toxic within spitting distance of major waterways in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. They could have steadily removed the coal ash to an inland site as it was produced but they didn’t do that. They piled it up right next to sensitive watersheds. That was stupid.

    2. Worried about potential dust from the coal ash Dominion let millions of gallons of water accumulate on top of the huge piles of coal ash. As it turns out, water has weight and that weight forced more of the coal ash toxins into the groundwater. One would expect that a good high school physics class could have constructed an experiment that would have demonstrated that. That was stupid.

    3. On a separate note, Dominion built nuclear reactors on an earthquake fault line despite warnings at the time of planning and construction that such a fault line existed. An earthquake happened and the reactors shut themselves down. Dominion claimed victory saying, in effect, “That earthquake didn’t cause any problems” I suppose we can only hope that a larger future earthquake won’t do any harm either. Building nuclear power plants on a fault line is stupid.

    4. Now Dominion sort of agrees that there is reason to doubt whether their encapsulation plan with regard to coal ash will be safe. They think it will probably be safe but, maybe not. The membrane will contain the ash without requiring the weight of water. As a side note, one wonders why Dominion didn’t think of this back when they poured millions of tons of water on the coal ash. But anyway, what happens if there is a flood or an earthquake? A hurricane or a tornado? Will we be treated to another Dominion, “Whoops!” moment. This sounds like a stupid idea.

    5. Dominion insists that moving the coal ash inland is economically infeasible and can’t be done in the required timeframe. But somehow the utilities in North and South Carolina can manage to do this. Dominion insists that they can’t use the coal ash to make construction block although other utilities do just this. It sounds like Dominion thinks Virginians are stupid, which is stupid on their part.

    Senator Surovell is quite right. The plan of record needs to be removal to lined inland pits until and unless Dominion proves that encapsulation is all but fool proof. Dominion’s drumbeat of stupid ideas needs to end here.

    1. Technical matter I believe the southern states including Virginia used a wet slurry method for the coal ash disposal, so although yes I assume rain water got in there, it started out watered down from the getgo.

      Also when you say Dominion knew it was toxic, much to my chagrin, the EPA allowed disposal of coal waste as a non-hazardous waste all these years. Non-hazardous means no controls needed. Obama EPA changed that going forward, but allowed capping of the old stuff, which is what Dominion is trying to accomplish.

  5. Given all the Dominion equivocating and apologizing, should this site be renamed the “Chuck Penn Rebellion” as it seems to be little more than another PR arm of the utility.

    1. djrippert Avatar

      I see it as more like “Point / Counterpoint”. On 60 Minutes it was James J Kirkpatrick vs Shana Alexander. Bacon is obviously James J. Kirkpatrick. However, I liked the Saturday Night Live spoof better than the 60 Minutes segment.

      I will henceforth start all my relies to Mr. Bacon’s posts about Dominion with, “Jim, you ignorant slut …”

  6. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    As ye sow, so shall ye reap. The geniuses at Dominion have spent the last many years telling the General Assembly that it should manage the power company, that the legislators should be making decisions and not the commissioners over at the SCC, that the SCC is not to be trusted, that we consumer advocates were just background noise. Well, the GA took it to heart and is now going to run the power company. Be careful what you ask for because sometimes you get it.

    Politics and hysteria will now drive the decision on coal ash, not science and a balanced stakeholder process.

    On another matter, I’ve been trying to share with you through Bacon a very useful tool on the existing laws (mostly written to benefit Dominion) that deal with electric regulation. He has not used it. My posting is now ancient and stale but the booklet is not, and here is the link and I encourage you all to spend some time with it. Larry, there will be a test.

  7. LarrytheG Avatar

    I don’t think it is possible to “analyze” the risk .. and that’s the problem.

    I don’t think coal ash is super toxic..but I also don’t think that covering it up guarantees it will never “leak” but heck that Judge down Chesapeake way has already decided that even if there is a “leak” it’s not enough to cause damage.

    I’m not on the side of the eniro-weenies on this but most other states have decided that leaving coal ash near rivers and creeks is a bad gamble because you can’t guarantee some future flood won’t do what has already happened in other places:

    I’m posting the picture below not to scare monger but to give some scale to the size of coal ash piles.. I don’t know if this one is bigger or smaller than some of Dominion’s but the point is when we say “cover them”.. it’s not like we are emtombing them under some airplane hanger.. type structure (like we might see with salt at VDOT depots).. coal ash piles are much bigger and covering them means piecing together a bunch of plastic .. there is no one sheet that cover them…

    How long does a liner and a cover last?

    what happens if they leak? how do you fix it?

    1. Larry we do not know what that picture represents , we don’t know if that was a bad design that was prone to failure, or a good design that got hit with 1000-yr flood. We’d need the background.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        TBILL – that’s a fair comment but the photo illustrates damage done to a coal ash pile that was subject to more water than thought it would be subjected to and that’s the problem we have by advocating cap-in-place with no study looking at the longer term risk and consequences , including costs and instead framing the short term cost and unknown gamble consideration the primary determinant.

        I think it is this one:

        According to the AECOM report commissioned by TVA and released June 25, 2009, failure occurred due to a variety of causes, primarily due to liquefaction of layers of “slimes” and other water-saturated materials deep within the growing ash pile. Collapse occurred over the course of approximately one hour in consecutive waves of breaking away and sliding

        The point here is that none of the coal ash piles were explicitly designed as containment structures.. like modern landfills are where the land fill has both a cap and a liner and liquids are captured , drained and taken away to be treated and modern landfills are generally not considered as toxic as coal ash pits but they are not allowed to “contaminate” the water table – that’s what the liner is for. That’s how you would “properly” entomb most any material that could contaminate the water table or get into a river or creek these days.

        One of the things a truly independent study WOULD DO is a survey of existing coal ash sites and how other states are handling the disposal issue. Another thing a truly independent approach would do is get RFPs from several companies on the cost the work so that we get actual real numbers from real companies bidding on the work as opposed to a “study” of cost commissioned specifically for Dominion per their direction.

        That’s the big problem here.. Dominion is controlling the process and development of information and very much wanting the General Assembly to make the decision in their favor – as opposed to turning this over to an independent entity to get the objective facts so that people could make a truly informed opinion.

        When you DON’T DO that – that is actually how you DO get “hysteria” and “politics”.

        I’m not even sure I’d be satisfied if the SCC did that work or even DEQ unless they were themselves commissioning truly independent 3rd party entities to conduct the study and request bids from the private sector.

        That’s HOW you actually would get politics and hysteria out of it.

        People need to have confidence that Dominion is not influencing the study nor the politics and that’s what’s causing angst – not those pesky enviros.. People – all people – not just enviros want a fair and objective process and the sooner that is done – the quicker things will quiet down.

        Most sane people realize you’re not going to get zero contamination.. that’s not the issue. It’s Dominion undue influence and refusal to advocate for an objective 3rd party study that is the issue.

  8. SteveH, you are right on target! The State of Virginia already has the DEQ and the SCC, both capable of doing the detective work, and holding the hearings necessary, and having the jurisdiction to decide, whatever policy is required. Jim points out, “The problem is that we don’t know the answer to the question.” Hell, we don’t even know if the right questions are being asked. This needs investigation and expert opinions. But what are we in for? Another political override by the G.A.

    In the 19th century, and with a vengeance in the 20th, we perfected the art of the administrative agency, capable of holding both “legislative” and “judicial” types of hearings pursuant to enabling legislation whereby the General Assembly or its equivalent delegated its more complex recurring tasks to specialists, who could take the time to become experts in arcane subjects and come up with the decisions required in the public interest. This sort of delegation was absolutely necessary for government to function with any sort of efficiency in our increasingly complex nation.

    Yet now, in the 21st, at least in some circles we have developed such distrust of big government that we are ready to toss careful consideration by the experts aside and bypass the agencies entirely for ‘common sense’ political solutions — enacted, in the way of ‘common sense,’ on the basis of Party biases, ex parte rumor, and the loudest lobbyists’ imitation of the Bremen Town Musicians, as refined through vote trading in midnight committee hearings, by part-time politicians engaged in their most frenetic and vulnerable moments of the annual Assembly.

    No wonder the federal government intervened to set deadlines for the States, if not simply dictate the answers, in so many aspects of environmental and energy regulation and policy. Now, how likely are we to be saved from our own GA by leadership in Congress? As you say, “Politics and hysteria will now drive the decision on coal ash, not science and a balanced stakeholder process.”

  9. NorrhsideDude Avatar

    I won’t make a comment, but you should all read EPAs CCR Rule website
    On the site are the slides from the EPA CCR webinar. I believe those slides will help you all understand a relatively complex issue and wade through a wealth of misinformation found on the internet.
    DEQ also has an entire page dedicated to Coal Ash

    1. NorrhsideDude Avatar

      By the way the majority of the questions I see asked here are already answered in the EPA CCR Rule documentation.
      Groundwater monitoring requirements, allowable beneficial uses, closure in place requirements, etc can all be found in the documents. The rule was signed by Administrator McCarthy (appointed by Obama) not Dominion or Duke, etc.

      1. Northside Dude, You’ve pointed to a lot of data. Are there any particular points that stand out as relevant to the current debate?

        1. NorrhsideDude Avatar

          I would review the PDF of the webinar slides. It summarize the issues and accepted practices in relatively simple to follow terms.
          I also want to point out this is a nationwide issue. EPA made determinations of how coal ash is characterized taking toxicity, risk, and economic realities into consideration.
          Also there are stipulations in the rule on how coal ash can be used for beneficial reuse.
          I believe there is room for debate, but I want your readers to understand the reality of the issues. The background and science is laid out on EPAs website and the Federal Register. Read up and make an informed decision.

    2. Thank you NorthsideDude. You can comment though, if you have studied the situation.

      What I would say is (I am a Yankee orig from PA and NJ) but down south here Virginia out to Kentucky down south thru I dunno Florida, this wet slurry disposal method was used. So all of these states are working on it, we need to compare notes to see if there are some answers.

      1. NorrhsideDude Avatar

        PA, OH, and WV have some of the largest coal ash impoundments on earth.
        It’ll take a hell of a lot of cinder blocks to encapsulate this one.

        1. NorrhsideDude Avatar

          And it appears Little Blue is being closed in place in SW PA.

  10. LarrytheG Avatar

    re: ” The same can be said of the environmentalists who are critical of the AECOM report. ”

    There are more folks than “environmentalists” concerned with this issue and portraying it as Dominion against enviros is not a fair or objective portrayal. Many folks may not know all the pieces and parts but they are concerned that Dominion contributes money to the GA and is heavily influencing the process – as opposed to a more objective process with independent players.

    “We are told that Carolina utilities are recycling and landfilling their coal ash. But an obvious question arises: at what cost?”

    Actually that IS information that COULD be developed – by Dominion – and they have chosen NOT to – and another example of why we need a more objective process.

    ” The coal ash issue is even more emotional in North Carolina than in Virginia because North Carolina is where one of the nation’s worst coal ash spills occurred. Is Duke Energy under more intense judicial and political pressure to pursue the recycling/landfilling strategy to remedy its coal ash problem regardless of cost? The cost per ton of recycling/landfilling in North Carolina may be public information, but it hasn’t entered into the public discourse in Virginia.”

    And AGAIN – if cost is an issue with Dominion why hasn’t Dominion itself brought this data to the table?

    “The problem with the Surovell-Chase bill isn’t that it’s a bad bill. It’s that the public has no way of knowing whether it is a good bill or bad bill.”

    No more or less than most other bills.. isn’t this just an excuse?

    ” We don’t have the data to make an informed decision. Perhaps the General Assembly should make it a priority to get that information before voting the bill up or down.”

    The same GA that Dominion showers money on and the same GA that has essentially neutered the SCC and other non-DOminion players who COULD be leading with a truly objective approach? The reason we don’t have this is precisely because neither Dominion nor the GA wants it.

    Be HONEST HERE ! the ability to produce a more informative study is there… and the principle players have CHOSEN to NOT do it and then try to deflect their irresponsible approach by blaming enviros for asking the very questions that are not being addressed.. that many folks beyond enviros want.. and are not getting..

    “Update: Haha! Looks who’s wallowing in ignorance! Juliana Condrey informs me that SB 1398 was from the 2017 session.”

    What you actually ought to be talking about here IS what NC – and some other states have actually already done in developing options and cost data for coal ash … just a simple literature review of what other states have done – for instance on moving coal ash to lined sites.. that cost is KNOWN…

    The lack of information on this issue is NOT the enviro’s fault.. it’s the path that Dominion has chosen itself and the GA has performed it’s usual feckless do nothing response.

    Why do we have to have the GA “force” Dominion to do the right thing in the first place and if the GA REALLY was serious – they’d directly task the SCC and DEQ to perform an independent study – STARTING with a compilation of studies already done and work already done in other states.

    The stock response in this blog has been and continues to be apologies for what Dominion will NOT do , what the GA will NOT do.. and blame that on enviros if there they’re the only ones who have concerns… and if it were not for them.. Dominion could go ahead and do what they think should be done.

    I’m SHOCKED that Acbar and Steve do not call this what it really is…

    1. Larry – The reason I say risk assessment is needed, if we say no contamination is allowed on flood plains, that potentially means no farms, no landfills of any kind, everything ever built like landfills there needs to excavated and hauled off. Lot’s of Superfund sites were capped. Basically to this point in history, rivers and streams were used for who knows what, but municipal wastes etc etc. We need to focus on improving water quality, which may have more to do with day-to-day runoff and emissions rather than making Dominion the enemy for punishment.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        TBILL – who said anything about “no contamination”? In fact , I’ve said the opposite.

        Modern landfills ARE, in fact, examples of that compromise… and so is the application of sewage sludge on millions of acres of land outside of urban areas in the countryside. so is the emission of millions of pounds of pollutants from cars and from power plants…

        Some superfund sites ARE cleaned-up and others are not – precisely because trying to clean them up may well spread the contamination even more… those sites are, in fact, THAT deadly.

        I do not make Dominion the enemy for pollution… LORD KNOWS.. they continue to spew millions of tons of particulate matter and mercury and other pollution – right now..

        What I am not happy with – with Dominion – is that they’re NOT seeking objective data so the public CAN see the pros and cons.. Dominion is promoting what is best for Dominion – not what might be best for Virginians.

        No. I don’t want Dominion getting a cheap ticket now – and then later on say that they did what they were asked to do and now it’s the taxpayer responsibility – like we see with superfund sites. I want Dominion to be responsible for not only the cleanup – but the downstream consequences of doing an on-the-cheap cleanup which is how we got superfund sites to start with.

        No.. I do not consider coal ash the equivalent of superfund sites but I DO consider coal ash to be similar in risk as municipal landfills which can also get into the water table and because of that have to use liners.

  11. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    “Virginia Wallowing in Ignorance About Coal Ash.”

    Now, how’s that for a hyperbolic headline? Two prominent state Senators, one a Republican and one a Democrat, have the unmitigated GALL to challenge Dominion’s plans regarding coal ash. The post’s headlines suggests that this pair is wallowing in ignorance. But what is actually happening is that Dominion, and by extension this sponsored blog, no longer is controlling the debate about coal ash (and other things) as it did not long ago.

    I have been covering Dominion and its predecessor firm Vepco for 44 years and it has always been fun to see how the giant utility schemes to control things. Just after I graduated from college, I took a job at a tiny daily in Eastern North Carolina. It was at the tail end of Vepco’s electricity coverage and sold the the city which then resold power to customers. All were very unhappy with Vepco’s imperial attitude and high rates. So, the town passed a bond issue to build high voltage carriers across the Pamlico-Tar Rivers so the town could switch to Carolina Power and Light and say bye bye Vepco.

    Fast forward to a few years ago. The coal ash issue is drawing controversy in Prince WIlliam, Tidewater, and the James RIver. Dominion wants water permits to simply dewater existing pits, treat the waste, dump it in tributaries of the Bay and then slap a tarp over the top of the pit. We in the media had to go through several assaults by their PR department:

    (1) What was being pumped into the waterways was “wastewater.” Just about every plant that emits water with waste in it is called wastewater or waste effluent. But Dominion’s flaks demanded that every story about the project be called “treated” wastewater.
    (2) Dominion simply would not address publicly that there are alternatives available such as dewatering and removing the coal ash from floodplains entirely or putting the dry ash in pits locally that have BOTH bottom liners and top covers. Dominion’s public relations people (and by extension this blog) pretended that just dewatering and a top liner were the ONLY way to go, cost wise.
    (3) Turns out that other states, including North and South Carolina do remove coal ash from flood plains and put it in approved, dry landfills. Or, they do recycle it into building materials such as cement or cinder blocks. Dominion’s pr people pretended that these were not options.
    (4) The author of this sponsored blog post pretends that North Carolina approaches coal ash emotionally because of Duke Energy’s notorious spill. Well, friends and neighbors, that very spill most definitely affected Virginia’s river system. And, coal ash from that spill was dewatered, dug up and railed to a Waste Management landfill in Amelia County, only about 40 miles from Richmond. Wait! You mean that disposing of coal ash the way that Dominion either says can’t be done or is too expensive is actually being done by a North Carolina utility at a Virginia landfill no less.
    (5) Finally, I would like to share this documentary that shows what, in an extreme case, what flooding with coal waste can do. True, this is unlikely in the flatter areas of Dominion’s coal ash ponds. But what happened when a giant coal ash pond broke near Buffalo Creek, W.Va. in 1972 was so horrific that it went far beyond quibbling about the amounts of leachate from the pits. Some 125 people were killed in a coal waste tsunami that roared down valleys. A Richmond-based company was involved. This was only about five or six hours by car from Richmond.

    Here it is:

    1. “So, the town passed a bond issue to build high voltage carriers across the Pamlico-Tar Rivers so the town could switch to Carolina Power and Light and say bye bye Vepco.”

      If this happened today, the municipal electric company manager could pick up the phone and call PJM and get a supply delivered from another source, even over wires owned by Dominion, because PJM operates the transmission grid in eastern NC today. Provided: the municipal utility would first have to terminate its existing exclusive-supply agreement with Dominion, if it had one.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        So…. that is happening with a lot of companies now also as we are seeing a proliferation of independent 3rd party solar – locating in the service areas of Dominion and the electric co-operatives.. using the grid Dominion and the co-ops own and operate to “deliver” power to customers that may even be in that utility’s service area.

        so something has changed because not that long ago – it was said that the utility could refuse to serve the 3rd party solar… sites… Now we’re being told that they’re hooking up to the utility’s infrastructure but they’re going through PJM.

        I would presume – perhaps ignorantly – that not every local part of a grid can support any size solar – that solar…. large solar may be limited to larger power lines and proximity to substations – so there MUST be SOME level of coordination going on .. with the utility or perhaps PJM.. just for hooking up… but even beyond that… the variability of the solar’s energizing the grid … has to be an issue. too much solar.. feeding into the grid.. then solar suddenly goes away.. that’s got to be something the utility has to deal with , perhaps even say ” no we can’t handle a big solar site at that location”.

        so how does this actually work? It seems like it has to be MORE than just going through PJM…

  12. LarrytheG Avatar

    The thing is , We are ALL responsible for coal ash .. as well as spreading sludge on rural Virginia. All of us want our electricity and plumbing… and we’re more than willing to let Dominion and cities and towns do whatever they have to do to get us electricity and sewage treatment.

    I don’t think this is Dominion’s call. All Virginians have a right to know what the choices are and to accept their share of responsibility for doing a reasonable cost-effective cleanup – but NOT an on-the-cheap cleanup as Dominion seems to be advocating – UNLIKE many other utilities beyond even Duke .. in NC.. Virginia is the outlier on coal ash.. we’re the ones that Dominion is claiming don’t need to do it the way other states and utilities are doing it – because the contamination is not so bad… and people are being “hysterical” about it. Nothing like a little fear-mongering to totally screw up any kind of an objective process, eh?

    Unfortunately for us – we cannot threaten govt sanctions to do a good process because our own Govt listens to Dominion more than to citizens.. who are all portrayed as hysterical enviro-weenies..

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