Burning Waste Coal to Restore the Land

Before and after images of Hurricane Creek gob pile. Image credit: Dominion Virginia Power
Before and after images of Hurricane Creek. Image credit: Dominion

by James A. Bacon

The Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center (VCHEC) is one of the cleanest-burning coal-fired power plants in the country. Its circulating fluidized bed technology meets strict federal standards for air emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, particulates and mercury. But it also has been instrumental in cleaning river water — by helping reclaim the 500,000-ton, Hurricane Creek gob pile on the Clinch River.

“This is major environmental success story,” said Paul Koonce, chief executive officer for the Dominion Generation business group in a press release issued this morning. “A unique power station is taking a waste product from a century-old coal mine and using it to responsibly make energy for Virginia today.”

The Hurricane Creek gob pile originated from Clinchfield Coal Company mining operations as far back as 1907. As was common practice at the time, Clinchfield separated coal mixed with too much rock and dirt to burn in power stations — gob — and dumped it in large piles. It wasn’t appreciated at the time, but the waste rock leached heavy metals, caused acid drainage and spilled sediment into nearby creeks and streams.

For decades an estimated 200 tons of waste coal from the pile eroded into the Clinch River each year. “This abandoned mine land was the largest pollution contributor to the Clinch River,” said John Warren, director of Virginia’s Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy.

There has been no economically feasible way to remove the gob until construction of the VCHEC, a versatile 600-megawatt power station that can burn coal, biomass and even waste coal. In 2012, the power plant began taking on  waste coal from Hurricane Creek.

Dominion Virginia Power partnered with Gobco LLC, of Abingdon, a company that specializes in environmental reclamation, to identify and reclaim old waste coal sites in Southwest Virginia. As reclamation of Hurricane Creek comes to a close, Gobco is cleaning the site down to the original ground, covering it with topsoil, restoring slopes for proper drainage, and planting grass to hold the soil in place. The final step is to replant thousands of native hardwood tree seedlings.

In the past, environmental groups have been critical of using the fluidized bed process to clean coal wastes on the grounds that burning the coal only concentrated the heavy metals and other pollutants in the coal ash. But Dominion disposes the combustion byproducts in a lined landfill on-site.

“Reclamation of the Hurricane Creek gob pile is an important step toward improving water quality in the nationally important Clinch River watershed,” said Brad Kreps, director of the Clinch Valley Program of the Nature Conservancy, which controls more than 35,000 in the Clinch Valley watershed. “Finding creative solutions to address pollution from abandoned mined lands is a crucial part of the larger effort underway to ensure that the Clinch River can provide clean water.”

Said Walter Crickmer, co-owner of Gobco: “It was not until VCHEC came online that our company really had the opportunity to clean up some of the worst problems. The irony is that a new type of coal-fired power station is crucial to cleaning up the waste of a bygone era in coal mining.”

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30 responses to “Burning Waste Coal to Restore the Land”

  1. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Sounds great but why is this news? When the plant was proposed a decade ago, burning leftover gob coal was touted as one of its attributes.

    1. It’s news because they’ve just finished cleaning up the largest single-point pollution source on one of the most biodiverse rivers in the world. Is a success story not considered news or must it be gloom and doom in order to qualify?

  2. Well, unlike many such proposals, this one is actually operating, and successfully at that! As you and Jim both know well, this power plant has a long history: https://www.baconsrebellion.com/2008/01/strife-in-coalfields.html

  3. LarrytheG Avatar

    geeze.. this part don’t sound so good:

    ” On January 1, 2009, Dominion implemented a rate increase for its Virginia customers to help pay for the plant. The rate adjustment will raise bills by $1.53 for every 1,000 kilowatt hours of electricity customers use, which translates to an increase of $1.84 per month for the average customer. The increase will subsidize $83 million in financing costs for the plant during 2009.[18] Dominion made no announcement about the rate change”

    1. This is purely an adjustment (by “Rider”) to reflect the addition of this plant to DVP’s retail rate base. The financing costs are accumulated during construction and then rolled into rates all at once.

    2. Interestingly, this rider was approved initially in advance of the completion of construction to finance the costs incurred up to that time. Unusual for the SCC to do that, although you can’t say it hurts ratepayers any in the long run.

  4. LarrytheG Avatar

    anyone know who Virginia Municipal Electric Association is?

    they are listed as one of the owners of this plant


    1. John’s right. VMEA = MEPAV. It’s like ODEC but for the municipal electrics, as opposed to the cooperatives, in Virginia.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      yeah – I caught that – but still have never heard of them and not understanding why they exist inside of other utility service areas instead of those places just getting their power from the service area they are in – Dominion, ODEC, other Co-ops?

      what differentiates them and why are they needed? what role do they serve that the utility in that area would not serve?

      it sounds inefficient as heck… you’d have to have your own utility equipment and employees just for those small areas?

      1. Rowinguy Avatar

        The members of MEPAV mostly do buy their power now from DVP. They operate distribution systems within their municipalities and have been doing so for many decades, before DVP spread out into their adjacencies.

  5. Darrell Avatar

    So does Dominion plan to turn the lined ash field into a golf course? Where does the water go when it leaches into the fill? Did this idea simply shift the pollution to a new spot?

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      if it’s not covered – they’d have to have a leachate collection system which does then lead to the question about what they do with the collected leachate which surely would be contaminated with nasty stuff that would need treatment before release.

      sometimes these little vignettes of what Dominion does -lack important details… they read almost like PR releases and answers to questions along the lines of “do not know” or no answer.

      1. That facility was nominated for a governor’s environmental award a couple years ago for their wastewater recycling. I’m not sure if they’re still keeping it up, but they were recycling their process wastewater (to include ash landfill leachate) and reusing that water in the plant. I don’t recall the dates, but they had been zero process wastewater discharge for a few years at the time of nomination. From an industry perspective, that’s pretty impressive and I’m surprised Dominion didn’t spin that into the article somehow.

  6. frank papcin Avatar
    frank papcin

    I recently read of a collage using the coal ash for something, but little else about it–how about a follow up on it?
    if they can use it for anything, why not use it

    1. Some utilities have recycled coal ash as a component in concrete. However, the economics tend to work only when power stations are located in urban areas with a large enough market to support the recycling. Power stations located in rural areas have to truck the ash large distances, which makes the recycling uneconomic.

  7. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    What exactly is not to like about these new technology coal plants?

    Might it be that the proliferation of such new coal plants might throw a lifeline to coal mining industry and its unemployed miners who now are in desperate straights for lack to good paying work, or any work at all?

  8. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Re-reading the headline, I realize that this post tries to put a happy face on supposedly “reclaiming” ripped up coal land. What is not addressed is that in parts of SOuthwest Virginia and certainly in the far more important coal states of Western Virginia and Kentucky, bankrupt coal companies like BRistol-based Alpha Natural Resources are hard-pressed to clean up their surface mining messes that are far, far worse that something left over in the early 1900s. I’m talking mountaintop removal in which thousands of acres of mountains are lopped off for coal. For years, coal companies were allowed to use their then-healthy balance sheets as collateral; for future reclamation rather than having to post hundreds of millions of dollars in escrow for cleanup. Now, just about every major coal company has been or is bankrupt. What will happen?

    I don’t know but I don’t think I’ll wait for Bacons Rebellion to tell me.

    1. Exactly right. Isn’t it odd that supposed conservatives will lecture suburban home owners about paying the full costs of their so-called sprawl but let coal mining companies completely off the hook for demolishing county sized areas of a given state.

      1. Who’s letting coal mining companies off the hook for poor environmental practices? Me? Citations, please. I’m inured to that kind of fact-free allegation from Peter, but I hold you to a higher standard.

  9. LarrytheG Avatar

    r: what will happen now that the coal companies are bankrupt and will renege on their responsibility to reclaim?

    probably the same thing as happened in the past when companies did this and taxpayers had to go reclaim the land.

    A jobs program to take ownership of the land, reclaim it, build solar and wind turbines on it and similar – paid for with a tax on electricity that all of us owe who have used electricity that came from coal. we all should participate.

  10. “Cleanest burning coal-fired power plant” is not saying too much. If we knew VCHEC annual pounds of solid waste, SOx, NOx, particulates, etc. those are probably big numbers. Presumably it’s a good thing for Virginia to have a couple of coal plants flexible enough to handle wood waste, lower grade coal, and other feeds. But I certainly would not give my personal seal of approval without a lot more study.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      well … Jim B… could actually supply that info … since he’s getting it from DVP … and I agree.. it would be nice to see a list of the coal burning plants with their SOx, NOx, particulate numbers along with this plant; and I’d be especially interested in mercury .

      In general – I find these Dominion “releases” from Jim to have a more PR “feel” and “smell” to them than substantiative and hard data so that readers can make up their own minds.

      Commenters have to go find the data… which does not inspire great confidence in the original posts.

      1. Just guessing here, but I am expecting the solid waste stream could be 50% of the input tonnage for gob coal, and not too much less for regular coal in the CFB process.

      2. The data for all power plants in the US is available from EPA at https://www.epa.gov/energy/egrid. Curious as to what qualifies VCHEC as one of the “cleanest”, I checked out the data myself and unfortunately the latest data available is 2011. So I took care of the finding the data for you, but now we have to wait until EPA gets the latest data posted…

    2. Rowinguy Avatar

      The General Assembly mandated the construction of this plant in the 2007 Electric Reregulation Act. See, Code of Virginia, Section 56-585.1 A 6, finding that the construction of “a coal-fueled generation facility that utilizes Virginia coal and is located in the coalfield region of the Commonwealth…..is in the public interest.”

      This was known as the William Wampler project.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        yes… I saw that part but if, in fact, it’s said to be one of the cleanest-burning coal-fired power plants in the country what are it’s specs and how does it compare ?

        is it twice as clean or just a tiny bit or what?

        1. Being one of the cleanest – burning coal fired plants is like being the major league baseball pitcher with the best batting average. Who cares?

          Incidentally, that honor belongs to the Giants’ Madison Bumgarner who is hitting at a torrid .247 rate.

          The tallest midget, the most interesting accountant, the cleanest coal plant – only in Virginia could this be considered relevant.

          1. LarrytheG Avatar

            well if someone is going to claim cleanest coal plant -I’d like to know… HOW CLEAN! Is it really, really clean or is it dirty as heck but a smidgen better than it’s peers?


            I mean if we have to sift through these fatuous PR bleeps from DVP – they oughta have to work a little…also…

  11. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Bacon is sort of like the snake guy who’s been bitten by Cobras 50 times and is immune

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