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.