Billions for Coal Ash Cleanup — for What Benefit?

Coal ash at Dominion’s Chesterfield power station. Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch

by James A. Bacon

The cost of cleaning up coal ash at Dominion Energy’s old coal-fired power plants will run between $2.4 billion and $5.7 billion, the company said at a presentation to the State Water Control Board yesterday. Disposal costs couldĀ  add $5 to the monthly bill of typical households over the next 15 to 20 years, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Dominion’s original plan called for consolidating and capping coal ash on site at its coal-generating plants. Environmental groups criticized the plan on the grounds that underground water migrating through the coal ash would pick up contaminants and pollute public waters. Under orders from the General Assembly, the power company now is looking at a combination of strategies that include recycling, on-site landfilling and off-site landfilling.

We are getting a clearer idea of how much the General Assembly’s coal ash mandate will cost, but I have yet to see an analysis of how much benefit will come from exceeding Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) disposal standards.

Environmentalists have fanned chemophobic fears by pointing out that existing coal ash ponds are slowly leaking heavy metals into the water table, creating elevated levels in nearby waters, and raising public health risks by barely perceptible levels. But there has been no analysis of the public health risks posed by Dominion’s original EPA-approved plan to consolidate the coal combustion residue in clay-lined pits and cap them with synthetic liners to prevent rainwater from percolating through.

There has been no analysis of how much of the proposed pits would be exposed to groundwater infiltration, how rapidly the groundwater would migrate through the clay, how much heavy metals the groundwater would pick up, how rapidly the groundwater would enter rivers, streams, and other open waters, or the extent to which the heavy metals, most of which occur naturally in the environment in minute traces anyway, would be diluted to harmless levels. No… analysis… whatsoever. The General Assembly mandate was enacted on the basis of pure emotion — one might say hysteria — ginned up by protests, press releases and a complicit news media.

Better safe than sorry seems to be the justification for spending billions of dollars. But no one can provide even a wild-ass guess regarding how many lives will be saved thanks to these precautions — 10 fewer cancer fatalities per year? one fewer per year? One fewer per decade? One per century? No one has a clue.

Now we know, however, that Virginia ratepayers will be somewhere between $2.5 billion and $5.7 billion poorer — as much as $1,200 per household over two decades.

How else would families spend that money if they were allowed to keep it? Perhaps they would just more fast food, purchase more Netflix subscriptions, or buy more lottery tickets. Who knows? But higher disposable incomes also allow Americans to buy more health and safety. Maybe Virginians would pay for more medical checkups. Maybe they’d buy cars with more safety features. Maybe they’d install fire alarms or sprinklers in their homes.

How many reduced fatalities can we attribute to an extra $2.5 billion or more in disposable income? I don’t know. I haven’t seen any research that addresses the topic. But I wouldn’t be surprised, if someone could crunch the numbers, to find that Virginians would wind up worse off landfilling coal ash rather than allowing rate payers to spend their money to meet their personal priorities. But, again, we’ll never know because no one saw fit to conduct the analysis.

As Virginia’s electoral transformation into a blue state slowly converts the Commonwealth into the New Jersey of the South, we can expect to see billions of dollars more to be funneled into emotion-driven initiatives that may or may not provide any public benefit.