A Third Way for Coal Ash Disposal

EnCAP-IT schematic shows how coal ash can be stored on-site above ground level in synthetically lined cells, or bunkers. Source: “Macroencapsulation: Obtaining on-site clean closure,” Geosynthetics magazine.

By Dominion Energy’s most recent estimate, it will cost between $2.77 billion and $3.36 billion to recycle the utility’s 30 million tons of coal ash or bury it in synthetically lined landfills — as much as $2 billion more than burying it in place. Environmental groups say the risk is justified to offset the risk that toxic levels of heavy metals might leak into nearby rivers and streams.

But what if it were possible to reduce the environmental risks while also slashing the cost to rate payers? Shouldn’t the General Assembly be considering that option?

John Swenson, founder and managing partner of Henrico-based EnCAP-IT Solutions of VA, has developed 12 patents around a coal-ash disposal process he calls macroencapsulation, which combines the cost-efficiency of cap in place with the risk reduction of removal to landfills. He’s frustrated because he can’t get either Dominion Energy or environmental groups to consider his approach. Now a compromise solution backed by Governor Ralph Northam effectively removes the option from consideration.

“We’re concerned that the proposed legislation is overly prescriptive and not including EnCAP-IT’s proposal,” said Swenson of previous legislation under consideration. “We don’t want legislation to pick winners and losers. We want all the facts and options out on the table. They’re missing the middle option.”

It may be too late to avoid the picking of winners and losers, however. This morning governor Ralph Northam announced a compromise bill, backed by Dominion and environmental groups, that will require the coal ash at Dominion’s four power plants to be “completed evacuated,” according to a Southern Environmental Law Center press release issued this morning.

“Dominion is now finally acknowledging that getting this ash out of the ground is the only way to protect communities and waterways, and that we can do so in a cost-effective way,” said SELC attorney Nate Benforado. “We applaud the Administration for taking a clear stand against an irresponsible plan to leave this ash where it sits, vulnerable to hurricanes and flooding, and for finding a way forward on this important issue.”

Under the least-expensive burial method proposed by Dominion, coal ash that has been sitting in watery pits for decades would be de-watered, consolidated into a single pit at each power plant, and capped with a synthetic liner to prevent rainwater from infiltrating through. Proposals favored by environmental groups and nearby homeowners would recycle as much of the coal as as possible as bricks and pavers, and then truck the rest to a lined landfill away from public waters for permanent disposal.

Problems with the environmentalists’ approach is that (a) no market exists for recycling all 30 million tons, (b) the landfilling option is expensive, (c) the truck traffic will create new inconveniences and hazards, and (d) using landfills for coal ash disposal will shorten the expected life of the landfills, thus creating the need to build new landfills in the not-too-distant future.

EnCAP-IT’s solution is to recycle that portion of the coal ash for which a market exists, and then to use the rest to create synthetically lined berms above the water table at the power plant site. EnCAP-IT, a design-engineering consulting firm, has already demonstrated the efficacy of the approach at the Shoosmith Sanitary Landfill in Chesterfield County, which has disposed of coal ash from a DuPont cogeneration facility, and Petersburg’s Tri-City Landfill, which has accepted coal ash from a Maryland utility.

The coal ash is used to create berms above the water table, eliminating the problem of groundwater migrating through the material and picking up heavy metals, Swenson explains. To add structural integrity, the perimeter berms are buttressed by “finger” berms, and each cell, or “bunker,” is lined and capped by high-density synthetic material to keep out water. The additional structural elements, including synthetic liners, make the system more expensive than burying the coal ash in a pit and capping it. But the ability to work within the existing confines of the power plant property, rather than trucking the material considerable distances, makes it far less expensive than the landfilling alternative.

The structures need not be permanent. The short-term problem with recycling, notes Swenson, is that the regional market will be swamped as coal-burning utilities throughout the Southeastern U.S. begin processing their coal ash. As the glut recedes and market conditions allow, EnCAP-IT bunkers can be mined and recycled to meet the construction industry demand for cement and block in the future. “One day,” says Swenson, “you can peal back the lid when coal ash becomes a commodity.”

The Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has approved the process for use at the Shoosmith and Tri-City landfills, and the company was qualified as a bidder in Dominion’s RFP process for disposing of coal ash. But “Dominion decided they would not look at it. I can’t speculate why.”

Swenson, who has engaged the Williams Mullen law firm as a lobbyist and Commonwealth Public Relations to press his case, also says he is disappointed that environmental groups have not considered his technology as an alternative to landfilling. “I would think they would like the idea. But they haven’t asked for information.”