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 could  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.

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24 responses to “Billions for Coal Ash Cleanup — for What Benefit?

  1. What got me is that the cost of it INCLUDES a PROFIT to Dominion.

    Also what happens to all the other ratepayers who get their electricity from other than Dominion in Virginia?

  2. There have been plenty of studies of coal ash Lleakage. Dominion tried to bulldoze a plan of not providing underliners. It was shot down in the GA by a bipartisan group include Amanda ChaseChase, a conservative who is anything but a wild eyed leftie. The new plan includes recycling that other states do but Dominion claimed was unfeasible. Plus there is Larry’s point about profiting from this. The rest if this piece is tired and lazy hyperbole.

  3. There would have been a signifncant cost of capping in the base case. We would have wanted that job done properly.

    Outhaul is an extreme remedy that may make sense for certain special cases such as drinking water contamination or extreme effects on wildlife, which is site-specific risk assessment.

    Not clear to me what the actual excavation proposal is. Sounds like GA allowed Dominion to peck away at it for years to come. I am not sure if someone gets a new landfill in their backyard as a result of this, or if we are just talking relo on the existing property. GA feels (sham) reccyling to cement is a good option, but I already had one house (in NJ) with defective cinder blocks apparently with waste incorporated…I do not want another one.

    If it was me it probably would have been cap-in-place except if there was a bad risk somewhere, but it seems like most of our sites were lower risk.

    • Would like to know more about what the problem was with your cinderblocks. Embedding otherwise toxic but inert fly ash substances in cinder ash for road construction and cinder block manufacturing was a classic way of getting rid of the stuff. But not in NJ?

  4. Chemophobic fears? No… analysis… whatsoever. No… analysis… whatsoever.

    You are worried about the costs of cleaning up the sites at a few plants. Trouble is they are only the beginning. These few have been chosen because they do pose a danger and are part of the Chesapeake Bay watershed and to say they are being dealt with only on the basis of “the precautionary principal” is just not true.

    Virginia is home to 32 coal ash impoundments … that have generated at least two federal Superfund sites in Virginia, one of which is on the national priority list, and two other documented sites where coal ash contaminated groundwater or caused extensive ecological damage.

    First … “documented”. After the coal ash spill disaster in Tennessee in 2008, the EPA began an evaluation of all the coal ash sites in the country. According to the EPA’s analysis of VA’s impoundments … “Five are rated ‘Significant Hazard’ meaning a dam failure would damage property and infrastructure and two are in poor condition,” So far, “$1.5 million of damage has been caused ,,, by Virginia’s two documented coal ash damage cases, at Clinch River and Adair Run.”
    ( heet.pdf)

    Some evaluations of the worst …
    • Chisman Creek coal ash landfill, which served the Yorktown Power Station, was listed on the Superfund’s National Priority List, the list of the most contaminated Superfund sites in the U.S., due to vanadium and selenium pollution of residential wells from coal ash contamination.
    • In 1967, a dike from a coal ash pond collapsed releasing a caustic ash slurry into the Clinch River. Some 217,000 fish were killed for up to 90 miles downriver. Forty years after the spill, aquatic ecosystems downstream remain degraded.
    • Dominion Virginia Power Chesapeake Energy Center’s leaking 22-acre coal ash landfill has contaminated groundwater with high levels of arsenic for almost a decade. The VA Department of Environmental Quality has measured arsenic at one monitoring well 30 times higher than the safe standard.
    • Possum Point Power Station is listed as a “proven damage case” due to cadmium and nickel contamination of groundwater attributed to oil combustion and coal ash from leaking coal ash ponds.

    AND …as I wrote in an earlier coal ash post … cleanup is also about political power. State issued permits to discharge waste into our water violated water pollution limits for years, according to the Guardian on August 7th. Dumping questions also arose in 2015 with legal challenges from Maryland and Riverkeepers about DEQ’s permit of 27 million gallons of untreated coal ash water discharged into Quantico Creek from Possum Point.

    VA ash pond regs had not been put in place before the coal ash became a national issue. The EPA also had not been doing their job regarding pond regs either. VA had no ground water monitoring requirements and the EPA first put out regs in 2014. I tried earlier this year to find out what EPA update was up too but did not succeed with any info about new regs or timetables.

    Earthjustice did an evaluation in 2011 with the Appalachian Mountain Advocates of the “State of Failure.” Virginia is listed, along with our surrounding southern states, as number 12 among the worst states.

    Why? In addition to the documented contamination listed above, the structural integrity of the ponds is questioned regarding 5 of11 pond, one of which, Chesapeake, required immediate action according to the EPA. The average height of VA ponds exceeds 50 ft and the average age is 47 years, although expected lifespan is 40 years. The EPA noted that VA does not require a bond to cover any operation or maintenance of pond hazards. Earthjustice also has a list of the state of all of VA’s coal ash ponds. (VA coal Ash Disposal fact sheet)

    Finally, I see Larry and Peter have brought this up … I agree. This expense is for something that was not taken care of in the past. Seems to me the ratepayers should pay for part of the bill, but so should the stockholders.

    • Jane — so much information, and so irrelevant to my post. I did not dispute the need for coal ash clean-up. I disputed the need for standards far stricter than the EPA’s!

    • I agree also with your last point, Jane. The case for exonerating shareholders rests on Dominion’s doing exactly what the EPA and VA DEQ and other agencies in that regulatory alphabet stew required of them at the time, efficiently and cost-effectively. Dominion was a low-cost utility for decades because they were well-managed and didn’t waste ratepayer funds on frills. That said, Dominion leadership should have known, at least as soon as the federal Clean Water Act and RECRA focused our attention on the hazards of water contamination from toxic waste disposal, that past practices were inadequate — yet they continued to press for relaxed ash-disposal requirements and take advantage of Virginia’s political environment to delay compliance in every legal way afforded for decades. Does that make Dominion itself, its shareholders, culpable today? Yes, I think any fair assessment would hold them responsible for at least a large portion of the harm that must now be undone. But State regulators (and yes, the GA) also share in that lack of foresight, that willful blindness to consequences, and so the ratepayers also must pay their part.

  5. We live in an age of witches, like Salem did.

    Back in 17th century (sixteen hundreds), Salem had hordes of witches that needed burning at the stake, since everyone clustered in small fearful towns had gross, rising fears, all surrounded by hostile, cruel Indians plotting in the dark woods of vast unknown wilderness. Therein, fearful pilgrims stacked close together always need someone different to blame, so their leaders sensing their scapegoats and opportunity of themselves, use imaginary crimes and criminals to stop and claim credit for. Hence a few opportunistic leaders whip up hysteria, to manipulate the fearful many, thus burning crone spinsters and widow for personal advantage, a perfect fix till next time.

    Now, our imaginations are stoked regularly by leaders within a fractured democracy they whip into dysfunctional hysteria in times of instant communication, almost constantly now.

    Thus we create hugely expensive solutions to small easily fixed or non existing problems that often are altogether imaginary but impossible to disprove. Like the Love Canal hoax that set off a series of hoaxes that lasted for decades. Or the campus rape rampage that lasted for a presidential voting cycle followed on its heals by Black Lives Matter battles with police brutality. The list is endless as we invent one fictional problem and crisis after another for the private gain of a evil duplicitous few.

    Meanwhile, real problems thrive and grow, like kids and their families going broke getting bogus educations that breed ever more ignorance and hysteria, while government wastes billions on reburying coal ash.

    • Yup. Irrational fear of invisible forces.

    • Jim, with due respect I was disagreeing with your quip of “No Analysis” and words like “barely perceptible levels” … which are just not true. This is not just a VA problem, although we are a state in the top worst dozen, it is a national problem.

      You say what about the EPA? … Here is what I just found … what I could get no answer for earlier this year … think the “9n response to Court decisions” is key! This revision is in progress …

      “EPA is proposing amendments to the closure regulations for the disposal of coal combustion residuals in response to the court decisions. In particular, the proposal includes:
      • Establishing a new deadline of August 31, 2020 for all unlined surface impoundments and those surface impoundments that failed the location restriction for placement above the uppermost aquifer to stop receiving waste and begin closure or retrofit. EPA determined this date after evaluating the steps owners and operators need to take to cease receipt of waste and initiate closure and the time frames necessary for implementation.
      • Establishing procedures for facilities to obtain additional time to develop alternate capacity to manage their wastestreams (both coal ash and non-coal ash) before they have to stop receiving waste and initiate closure of their coal ash surface impoundments.
      • Changing the classification of compacted-soil lined or clay-lined surface impoundments from “lined” to “unlined”.
      • Revising the coal ash regulations to specify that all unlined surface impoundments are required to retrofit or close.
      EPA is soliciting comments in a 60-day comment period (ending January 31, 2020), during which a virtual public hearing will be held on January 7, 2020 for interested persons to present information, comments or views concerning these proposed changes.

      Reasonable conclusion that people who don’t accept facts are looking for witches! WOW!

  6. Chemophobic Salem witches? Wow!

  7. Ahhh, the “New Jersey of the south” canard. Well, I guess that makes Richmond the new Trenton. Works for me.

    Unfortunately, Jim Bacon seems to have forgotten the hubbub in North Carolina where the state DEQ ordered the coal ash excavated and removed to lined landfills. That was April 1, 2019. “DEQ rigorously reviewed the proposals, and the science points us clearly to excavation as the only way to protect public health and the environment,” Secretary Michael Regan said in a statement. “Today’s action sends another clear message that protecting public health and natural resources is a top priority of the Cooper administration.”

    Duke Energy appealed the decision through the courts on April 26 and Duke was shot down on August 2 by a North Carolina administrative law judge. As far as I know that’s where the matter stands.

    Maybe Virginia is becoming the North Carolina of the Mid-Atlantic. That would make Richmond the new Raleigh. I think I’d go with that, Jim.

    • I never took you for a guy to take something on blind faith. But if the state of North Carolina says “the science” us to excavation, then I guess we have to accept it.

      Question: Does “the science” point N.C. toward excavation, or does some politician’s or bureaucracy’s interpretation of the science point the state in that direction? I’d like to see the numbers. Perhaps the conclusions are justified — I’m not say they aren’t. I am saying that we have seen no comparable analysis here in Virginia.

      • Analysis … After the TN disaster in 2008, the EPA set out to rate all the impoundment dams nationwide. … in VA 5 were rated as “Significant Hazard and 2 in poor condition.” That was 2011.

        Regarding groundwater analysis … “For decades, utilities have disposed of coal ash dangerously, dumping it in unlined ponds and landfills where the toxins leak into groundwater. According to industry’s own data, more than 95% of the coal ash ponds in the United States are unlined. Almost all of them are contaminating groundwater with toxins above levels that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency deems safe for drinking water.”

        Because the data required reported by the states to the EPA had not been gathered EarthJustice did the gathering. “Legal and technical experts from EarthJustice, the Environmental Integrity Project, and partner organizations located and analyzed the state’s required data disclosures of pond monitoring.”

        More than 550 units — at 265 plants — reported groundwater monitoring data. Based on that data, 91% of these plants are contaminating groundwater with toxic substances at levels exceeding federal safe standards.

        Here is the Court decision that was significant … an argument that went on in VA.
        “In August 2018, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that the Rule’s exemptions for “legacy” ash ponds fell short of statutory requirements to protect human health and the environment, and ordered U.S. EPA to strengthen the Rule.” That is the rule that has been proposed but not finalized … see above post.

        The Earth Justice mapped the EPA’s collection of state data … and updated the map data on Aug. 20, 2019

        Here are the 3 VA has 3 sites where there has been known contamination of drinking water … Yorktown, Possum Point and Chesapeake Golf Course.

      • My comments were in regard to you last paragraph … “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.”

        In North Carolina the Governor is a Democrat but both houses of the legislature are controlled by Republicans. In fact, Republicans have controlled both houses since 2011.

        I’m not really sure this is a Democrat vs Republican issue or a North vs South issue.

        Groundwater contamination is an issue but I assume it can be alleviated by bringing in county water via pipe (rather than using wells). However, the question of a storm breaching the covered coal ash and spilling it into a part of the Chesapeake Bay estuary is another matter. Everybody thought that Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukishima could never happen. Until they did. The evil axis of Dominion and the Virginia state government (with pockets bulging with Dominion money) will never convince me that they have taken the risks of environmental catastrophe into proper account. Perhaps if Dominion hadn’t bought our state government I’d have more confidence.

  8. I claim invention of the term “Chemophobic extremism” here on BR a month ago or so.

  9. Yep – Jim KEEPS saying “what problem” and all the other states, including NC say it’s a problem… but I STILL do not understand why Dominion is entitled to a PROFIT, Why don’t we just get a competitive bid on it instead of paying Dominion MORE than it SHOULD cost AND a profit on top of it?

  10. This is crappy ratemaking. A return on investment is limited to an asset that is used and useful in producing the regulated commodity or service. The clean-up has nothing to do with producing electricity for today’s customers. If a clean-up is required because of the generation of electric power, a good argument can be made that it is not a recoverable expense because it violates the matching principle. That holds that, to be recoverable, all expenses and investments must be related to the production of today’s electricity. And, in the event, the costs are properly charged to today’s customers, it should be done as a dollar for dollar expense recovery.

    • This “profit” on cleaning up coal waste is a scandal … The GA and other folks that are part of it should be ashamed.

      The GA is basically “taxing” ratepayers to pay the investors of Dominion.

      If this was put out for competitive bid – it probably would have cost far less…. that what amounts to legalized pocket-picking.

  11. Part of the “pro” argument for capping in place is, removing the coal ash does not necssarily fix anything – could make it worse – whereas a lot of the contamination is already in the ground. If you cap-in-place you are trying to prevent further infilration of water through the waste site, whereas if we outhaul, we are exposing the area to water infiltration. But silly me, Dems want say out-of-site, out-of-mind is good policy.

    • If the coal ash dumps were located somewhere other than on the banks of major rivers I’d say Ok.

      • Two things …
        First … “capping in place does not stop pollution from coal ash impoundments as groundwater water moves through the sites horizontally, not just vertically from falling rain. This is especially the case when coal ash dumps are built on top of existing streams, swamps, and other wetlands.
        Research indicates leaching of arsenic and selenium is impacted by whether coal ash pits are aerobic or anaerobic environments (whether oxygen is present). When a coal ash pit is capped, it may become anaerobic which has been shown to increase the leaching of arsenic.”
        The coal ash get to the ponds via water …

        Second Yup to dj … Dominion would have a better argument if the state had mapped it’s aquifers, but it has not taken care of where the underground water actually is. What were these coal ash pits actually built on top of? Aquifers are often located beside rivers, so that the rivers are threatened by underground water flow as well as dam overflows and breaks.

        Avner Vengosh, a geochemist at Duke University, has published numerous peer-reviewed studies on coal ash. “Capping in place can’t prevent the infiltration of rainwater that will cause heavy metals to leak from the ash pit into groundwater, Vengosh said. ‘You don’t have to be scientist. It’s kind of common sense.’”

        Duke Power says groundwater contamination can be prevented with “engineering steps” such as pumping technologies or barrier walls, which Vengosh calls “rubbish”. He also says that Duke is just trying to save money but that they shouldn’t be the only voice in the decision.
        Gotta say that sounds like VA.

        Another problem addressed in a suit decided at the DC Circuit in August 2018 is … allowing unlined ponds to remain in place puts a burden on a monitoring system that neither the EPA or the states have in place and that when leaking is found the damage will continue for quite a while, even years, before corrections can be made.

        Moving the stuff doesn’t look like as terrific job but leaving in place is just not prudent.

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