Coal Ash: How Much Risk Mitigation Does $5.7 Billion Buy?

Coal ash at the Chesterfield Power Station. Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch

Governor Ralph Northam has indicated his support for digging up 27 million cubic yards of coal ash, recycling some of it, and disposing of the rest in lined landfills far from Virginia’s rivers and streams. The cost has been estimated at $5.7 billion, adding an average $3.30 per month to the average household’s electric bill over 20 years.

“If not disposed of properly, coal ash can ruin water quality and create environmental disasters,” Northam said at a news conference yesterday, citing a 2014 coal ash spill in North Carolina. “We cannot have a repeat of that here in Virginia.” So reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

If Northam really said that, I shudder for the future of the commonwealth. There is so much misunderstanding packed into such a brief statement.

Maybe the governor has a keener grasp of the coal-ash issue than he let on. But when we’re discussing a potential $5.7 billion expenditure, Virginians have a right to expect the governor not to garble the message. As it is, one is left with the impression that Northam, who has incurred the wrath of environmentalists for his support of two natural gas pipeline projects, is throwing the environmental lobby a multibillion-dollar bone at rate payers’ expense.

Let’s dissect the statement.

First, Northam cited a 2014 coal ash spill in North Carolina, adding, “We cannot have a repeat of that here in Virginia.”

No one wants a repeat of the Duke Energy coal ash spill in 2014 that contaminated a stretch of the Dan River in Virginia. That’s precisely why the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) enacted new regulations for preventing another spill, and why Dominion Energy moved quickly to comply with the regulations.

For decades it was standard practice for Dominion, like Duke and many other power companies, to dispose of the “ash” — mineral residue from coal combustion — on site at its power stations. Utilities dumped the material in large containment ponds and soaked them with water to keep down the dust. The material just sat there year after year, and nobody paid much attention to it. Then between 2008 and 2014 a series of incidents, culminating with Duke’s Dan River spill, demonstrated that sludge-filled containment ponds were vulnerable to being breached and spilling into riverways.

New EPA regulations, enacted in 2015, were designed to prevent such spills. Here in Virginia, Dominion’s plan for its four coal-fired power stations has been to (1) de-water the coal ash so it is mostly dry, no longer a sludge, (2) consolidate multiple ponds into a single pit, and (3) cap the pit with a synthetic liner and a couple of feet of dirt and vegetation to prevent rainwater from seeping through. Even the most ardent environmentalist foes have disputed that this so-called “cap-in-place” plan would significantly reduce the risk of spills (although they argue that they still might be vulnerable to the occasional hurricane).

So, Northam’s statement that, “If not disposed of properly, coal ash can … create environmental disasters” is a non-sequitur. Coal ash is being disposed of in accordance with EPA regulations to prevent another “disaster.”

That brings us to the second part of Northam’s statement that coal ash, if not disposed of properly, can “ruin water quality.” There is at least a factual basis for that statement, although it overlooks a lot.

A federal judge has ruled that ground water migrating through coal ash stored at Dominion’s power plant in Chesapeake has entered the Elizabeth River, creating elevated levels of heavy metals leached from the ash. Also, environmental groups have documented the existence of elevated levels of contaminants in the James River near Dominion’s Chesterfield plant and have argued less convincingly that contamination from coal ash at the Possum Point station has affected nearby well water. The judge declared that pollutant levels were so low in Chesapeake as to pose no threat to human health, however, and there has been no legal ruling regarding the Chesterfield pollution. To put an end to a public relations headache, Dominion has paid for municipal water hook-up for residents living near Possum Point.

Regardless, those pollutants result from the old method of storing coal ash. Under the EPA-approved method, Dominion proposes de-watering the ash, consolidating it in pits above the water table, and capping it with a synthetic liner to prevent infiltration by rainwater. Low-level pollution that occurred under the old rules tells us nothing about the potential for pollution under the new EPA rules.

That’s not to say that Dominion’s preferred solution is risk free. The Southern Environmental Law Center has argued persuasively that a small portion of the proposed impoundment pit at Chesterfield would intersect with the water table, allowing ground water to migrate through the pit, pick up contaminants and reach the James River. However, the process of groundwater migration is slow and the volume of contaminants would be limited.

More to the point, no one has quantified the potential for contaminants from the EPA-approved ash pits to reach rivers and streams, much less has anyone put a number on the risk to human and aquatic health. I’m not asserting that there is zero risk. But let’s get a grip: We’re not talking about another kepone disaster here or anything remotely on that scale. The fact is, we have seen no study documenting the existence of a measurable risk. We have no idea how much risk mitigation, if any, we would be buying for an extra $4 billion to $5 billion.

If Virginians want the expensive solution, they deserve a better justification than what the governor has offered.

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40 responses to “Coal Ash: How Much Risk Mitigation Does $5.7 Billion Buy?”

  1. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    Given Dominion has already spent hundreds of millions of ratepayer dollars toward meeting the current EPA requirements, if the state then orders all that dug up and moved somewhere else, who eats that wasted money? Three guesses and the first two do not count.

    Watch out, people – the game here is all about who pays and no way in hell it should be ratepayers only.

  2. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    I believe that one can make a good argument that ratepayers already funded the costs for the current plan for handling coal ash. Moreover, the proposed change has nothing to do with the current costs for generating electricity. It seems reasonable for ratepayers to fund the costs for better treatment of newly burned coal but there is no sound regulatory reason for current ratepayers to pay for something that gives them no benefit whatsoever. The VSCC should tell Northam to pound sand.

    This is retroactive ratemaking, which is not permissible.

    1. Steve Haner Avatar
      Steve Haner

      Nothing is not permissible in VA, not any more.

      1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

        I appreciate the point but the argument should be presented anyway. Ratepayers could argue that any other result is also a taking of property (ratepayers’ cash) without compensation.

  3. LarrytheG Avatar

    re: ” The judge declared that pollutant levels were so low in Chesapeake as to pose no threat to human health, however, and there has been no legal ruling regarding the Chesterfield pollution”…… ” The Southern Environmental Law Center has argued persuasively that a small portion of the proposed impoundment pit at Chesterfield would intersect with the water table, allowing ground water to migrate through the pit, pick up contaminants and reach the James River. However, the process of groundwater migration is slow and the volume of contaminants would be limited.”

    so there are some reasonable questions :

    1. – who decides what contamination is or is not? A judge? Is he basing it on scientific analysis conclusions or did he just say so himself? Has ANY truly independent analysis been done separately from Dominion’s?

    And if the one is Chesapeake is “safe” then why is the one at Chestfield not? Why are we using different criteria? Seems like if the concern is that is get into water that it’s ridiculous to say the one is Chesapeake is “safe” and the one at Chesterfield is not.

    2. – WHO is responsible if we cap in place and then a disastrous storm repeats the Duke Danville disaster? If we approve Dominion’s cap in place and a disaster does happen later – is Dominion still responsible or did we transfer responsibility to taxpayers when we accepted Dominion’s proposal?

    3. – Why are ratepayers responsible and not investors?

    4. – Do we believe the cost estimate that has been provided by Dominion? Do we have an independent cost estimate?

    5. – Dominion raked in excess profits as well as a tax rebate to the tune of multiple millions, billions? of dollars. Why are these monies not fair game to help pay for the ash cleanup? This money came from ratepayers and Dominion wants to keep it and make ratepayers and/or taxpayers pay again.

  4. An analogy to this would be Superfund sites for waste chemicals that are very hazardous. When I lived in New Jersey, we had three of the Top 10 worst Superfund sites a few miles from my house. Lipari Landfill was No. 1. They were all capped in place. So what is controverisal here is the notion that capping in place is bad practice.

    Also we were in Superfund architech Rep./Gov. Jim Florio’s district, so perhaps our sites got top billing, but the reason for the high ranking was closeness to drinking water and lakes poeple etc.

    1. Interesting. Is Virginia setting a higher standard for dealing with coal ash than toxic waste?

      1. We have a political hot potato, but the Southeastern states who have used this pond technique, ought to formulate recommended methods to rank and mitigate the sites. EPA has already years ago ranked these sites as far as potential for catastrophic damage, and I do not think Virginia had any of those (coal ash dams ready to burst). So Gov Northam is politicizing non-catastrophic siutations. Obviously I am in favor of acting to prevent catastrophes, if they exist.

  5. I am not completely up to speed on this issue, but I have a few comments.

    The best practice for bottom ash disposal (the clinkers that are contaminated with heavy metals) since the early 1980s was to dispose of it in ponds lined at the bottom to prevent contamination of ground water. The overflow from the ponds required treatment to meet water quality standards before being released into nearby water bodies. When the pond was full, it was capped using the method described here to prevent the influx of water.

    It seems the bottom barrier to prevent ground water contamination was never installed by Dominion and is still being left out of the discussion. Why?

    The SCC (or someone) should determine if there was influence applied to reduce the regulatory requirements (and thus the cost) for the proper disposal of the coal ash. If so, some portion of the cost of this project should be borne by the shareholders since their profits were increased for decades due to the efforts of management. The current proposal double charges ratepayers for handling the ash twice, especially if shortcuts were taken the first time around to the advantage of shareholders.

    Whatever portion is deemed recoverable in rates, it should be a cost recovery only. There should be no rate of return applied to a project such as this.

    Toxic waste sites often require special containment measures. To contain coal tar wastes (from coal gas production in the early 1900s) that was dumped in unlined pits, we had to dig trenches down to impermeable bedrock around the site and fill it with bentonite to prevent further release of the coal tar into the groundwater. In addition to a cap.

    1. I do not believe any of these sites required liners at the time.

      It is only the states from Virginia southeast that practiced this wet disposal technique, but they should probably form a consortium funded in part by the utility companies. The purpose of the consortium would be to establish risk assessment and possibly manage clean-ups.

  6. LarrytheG Avatar

    re: superfund standards versus coal ash. It depends on where the site is. If the site is near water – it often means moving it if they can unless doing so would cause even more release and contamination.

    But to give another anology – undergound fuel tanks are also regulated and abandoned or no-longer-used ones usually have to be removed and any contaminated soil around them removed.

    and locally where I live – we have the L.A. Clarke Superfund site:

    Superfund sites like this one are usually never considered “cleaned up” and useable again. The L.A. Clark site is STILL leaking contaminates… and will continue to do so because there is so much soil that is still contaminated.

    Keep in mind – that years before – when L.A. Clark was permitted, it was, at that time , based on science at that time, considered safe. Later as science advanced, it was determined it was not safe.

    That’s the problem with coal ash. EPA has been under pressure to NOT declare it a toxic/hazardous waste because if they did these sites would then meet the criteria for Superfund and no one – wants that, least of all, Dominion who then would be held responsible, essentially, forever. So they want to get out now.

  7. I’m with TMT here, the cost of complying with a changed regulation should be borne by those who changed it — the government — not those ratepayers who paid the full cost to comply with the regulations in place at the time the coal was burned and the ash was created and stored. Good luck adhering to such a distinction, but it’s particularly appropriate here.

    The situation is no different than complying with changed understanding of sea level rise and the warming climate. It’s outrageous that we still allow new housing development in flood plains and in tidal flats along the Bay and Hampton Roads — but this is not the fault of the land developers, but of the local governments who seek tax base growth and encourage cheap housing, now, in total disregard (even willful evasion) of the downstream consequences. Of course such development should be proscribed immediately — if only to keep the problem from getting worse! So should continued use of coal ash storage sites that don’t meet current standards. Not that Dominion is a problem in that regard.

    But heap this cleanup cost on electric ratepayers? In this case, that’s just a quick recipe for driving the cost of Dominion’s chief product so high that Virginia ceases to be the competitive place it currently is for high-energy-use industries like data processing centers and other high-tech, IT industries. This is our own high-tech future in Virginia; do we want to shoot ourselves in the foot by over-taxing the utility ratepayers of a single utility for expenses that should be borne by all taxpayers? A competitive electricity supply is an asset; don’t waste that asset on the politics of “no new taxes” to pay what is, in reality, clearly a tax.

    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      I agree with Acbar’s comments.

      In addition:

      These ash and hazardous waste remediation issues here are very complicated subjects, and I have not the expertise to provide helpful information here. I can say that, based on past experiences dating back to the rise of the Environmental movement in the 1960s, I would not be surprised if the these extraordinarily expensive remedies to coal ash issues proposed by the Northam administration are being driven primarily by purely political considerations, including out of control unregulated filthy money now flooding our political system. If that is correct, then the corruption at play here is put on steroids by the Northam’s propose solution that average citizen rate payers foot the bill for these likely exorbitant costs demanded by the Environmental community. In short, ratepayer pay the bill for Northam’s political payoff to satiate Northam’s ideological driven political base. Of course today this is the exception, rather that norm in American political across the political spectum.

      This of course too is a very old story, one where huge amounts of public funds (taxpayer monies) have be wasted to feed the demands of the environmental lobby. This includes much (but certainly not all) of the tens of $billions of Superfund cleanup funds wasted for decades after the Love Canal hoax.

      1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
        Reed Fawell 3rd

        correction to above last sentence in 1st full paragraph:

        Of course today this is the norm, rather than the exception, in how the American political process works today across the political spectrum.

    2. TooManyTaxes Avatar

      I’d go further. If the government can make a case that what was previously allowed for coal ash storage is no longer acceptable, Dominion and its shareowners alone should eat the cost for the new solution. Why should taxpayers pick up the bill? Why should taxpayers fund environmental remediation of private property?

      I suspect that the EPA might have a hard time justifying that compliance with then acceptable and mandated standards is no longer sufficient, such that new and very costly new measures must be taken. But if it can prove its case and have it sustained in court, the costs of compliance must fall only on Dominion and its shareowners.

  8. LarrytheG Avatar

    re: ” I’m with TMT here, the cost of complying with a changed regulation should be borne by those who changed it — the government — not those ratepayers who paid the full cost to comply with the regulations in place at the time the coal was burned and the ash was created and stored. Good luck adhering to such a distinction, but it’s particularly appropriate here.”

    I dunno Acbar… it’s not really ratepayers versus the government – it’s ratepayers versus taxpayers and that’s true for most all regulations but how would we ever get cleaner air or cleaner water unless we tightened our regulations that were not strong enough to begin with – for ANYTHING?

    You being a paddler – you know the situation with our rivers and how over the years as more growth has occurred – more use of our rivers for dumping industrial , municipal, farm and stormwater waste which resulted in massive negative impacts to the rivers and the Bay from Kepone to higher and higher levels of nitrogen etc.

    How do you fix that without more regulation to require less pollution and in turn higher costs on the entities that pollute who then pass those costs on to ratepayers and taxpayers?

    Coal Ash was actually generated by the people who use electricity. Dominion did what it was supposed to do and the pollution was allowed but now – like a lot of cleanup efforts – like with superfund sites like at Front Royal and Tye River (or Four Mile Run up in your neck of the woods) , as well as old/abandoned fuel oil tanks and tire dumps… it has to be cleaned up… so who should pay for that cleanup?

    That’s the thing about these cleanups… it ends up being on all of us one way or the other – all everyone gets dinged on the money at some point – not the proverbial guy behind the tree.

    Just for the record – Cleaning up the Bay (and other) – is some hobby or project of environmental groups – what most people want… and they know it has costs and they’ll end up paying for it with higher water/sewer rates, higher costs for farm-raised food and higher costs for products that no longer contain the original active ingredients.. like CFCs.. etc.

  9. LarrytheG Avatar

    re: ” Just for the record – Cleaning up the Bay (and other) – is NOT some hobby or project of environmental groups …

    and perhaps some reasonable examples can be found right up in NoVa.

    Take, for instance, the CSO – combined sewer overflow issue. It’s not some hyped “environmental cause” , it’s a real problem with real ongoing damage to the Potomac and the Bay. How do you fix it? Who should pay to fix it?

    The same thing is true with dozens, hundreds of small streams in NoVa that are severely impacted by runoff from development. Again – it’s not some made-up issue by activists – it’s a real problem and the question is – who should pay to fix?

    Here’s another – the Mirant Power Plant:

    Virginia approves cleanup plan for power plant site

    The point is that such pollution is real and the damage to the environment is real – and most folks want it cleaned up – but who pays is always the issue.

  10. The question of “who pays?” is a legitimate one. But the point of the blog post was to question how much we should be paying for.

    Do we add anything to the sum total of human health by reducing the slow release of minute quantities of heavy metals to essentially zero — for that is the standard Northam is endorsing.

    How much risk would Northam’s plan mitigate? When you’re talking about a delta of $4 billion between the two proposals, we should make the decision based upon the best scientific knowledge rather than a hysterical fear of “toxic” chemicals seeping into our waterways. Heavy metals are not toxic below certain levels deemed to be safe by the EPA. Indeed, in trace quantities, some heavy metals are essential for the functioning of the human metabolism. Zero emissions is an absurd goal. The question, then, is how much can we live with?

    Nobody but nobody is raising that issue. I find that extremely disheartening.

    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      Here you have gone right to the heart of the issue, Jim. This was also a central flaw of the Superfund legislation, as implemented even in those cases where there was no hoax, but in fact a legitimate health and safety concern to be addressed properly.

      The key word here is “properly.”

      Instead of meeting that standard, the great bulk of the Superfund money was improperly wasted chasing an illusion built on induced public hysteria. The result was the special interests got grossly rich solving problems that raised no legitimate risks, along with real concerns that could have be properly addressed at a faction of the costs. Tens of $billions were wasted for no benefit to the public at all.

    2. Yes we have entered the zero pollution era, characterized by the belief that pollution we cannot see and may not even exist is destroying our quaity of life and killing ten of thousands of Americans and robbing us blind. Clearly we would all be millionaires living to Age 250 if pollution were reduced from near zero to exactly zero.

      Actually former Gov. McAuliffe was on CNN Thursday night trying to explain to Anderson Cooper that Democrats need to come down off their extreme negativism and extreme extremism. Which I agreed, but neither Anderson Cooper nor my better half agreed with him.

    3. LarrytheG Avatar

      re: how MUCH? I agree and I do not trust Dominion-only numbers.. I’d like to see independent estimates by 3rd parties who have no direct interest.

      Next – the big question is quantifying the actual risk – as opposed to various folks and Dominion offering opinions.

      Third – who is responsible long term if the current assessments prove to underestimate the future risk and potentials?

      I do agree – we do not want nor need zero emissions nor pristine.. all of us put poo in the rivers right now… and I don’t see anyone volunteering for 100% recycling of wastewater back to drinking water.

      So I’ll throw it back to you – Do you have any idea at all of what the “right” about of wastewater pollution is acceptable? Would you have an opinion that is informed that you would stand behind?

      If you don’t have one for wastewater then why would you for coal ash?

      Who would you trust for a more informative assessment?

      1. The EPA has established safe limits for heavy metals and other contaminants found in coal ash. These limits, which are periodically reviewed and updated, are based on the best science available.

        That’s how, to answer one of the questions you posed earlier, the federal judge could determine that contaminants from the Chesapeake plant found in the Elizabeth River, though elevated, posed no threat to human health. He wasn’t making stuff up. He was comparing measured levels of contaminants versus the EPA standard.

  11. LarrytheG Avatar

    re: Superfund

    I have seen at least 4 superfund sites in Virgina. None of them are “hype”. Every one has some serious issues.

  12. LarrytheG Avatar

    re: the era of zero pollution.

    Clearly not. The reality is pollution that you do not want to see or “experience”.

    That’s why power plants are not wanted close to where the power is needed and usually get shut down and moved to rural areas.

    For those of us that eat food – meat – I’d encourage you to visit a stockyard or a poultry or pig farm to convince yourself that we really have achieved “zero” pollution (sic). Similarly, if you think your car is “zero” – run it in a closed garage and see if it really is. Visit a wastewater treatment plant to see what happens to your POO and convince yourself that none of it goes into your nearby river.

    My guess is that the average person has never taken a tour of a poultry or pig farm, a power plant or a wastewater treatment plant for if they had they would KNOW that the idea of “zero” pollution is a joke.

    Further – if you went back in time – you’d KNOW how much MORE came out of coal smokestacks, cars before emission reglations, rivers.. like the Potomac and James when sewage went into them only after “settling” for a day or so.. or Poultry/Pig manure and slaughter waste went directly into rivers.

    It’s NEVER been about “zero”.. only in the minds of the uninformed – on both sides of the issue. Normal, reasonable people KNOW and accept that there is no such thing as zero – BUT there very definitely is such a thing as TOO MUCH pollution. Zero is not and never has been, the goal except in the minds of some..

  13. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    “Zero is not and never has been, the goal except in the minds of some..”


    And most, if not all, of those “some” demanding “Zero Tolerance” are an increasingly large segment of the Environmental Movement.

    Hence, the professional Environmentalists’ perennial, total, and implacable opposition to nuclear power plants, gas pipelines, and natural gas generation of energy, no matter the cost or sacrifice or critical need, a demand made to destroy those industries and solutions in every time and in every place, no matter what – all done in a blind and furious opposition that matches the illogical passion of the most radical of religious and political zealots.

  14. Jane Twitmyer Avatar
    Jane Twitmyer

    No one has … “no one has quantified the potential for contaminants from the EPA-approved ash pits to reach rivers and streams, much less has anyone put a number on the risk to human and aquatic health.”

    Sorry, the EPA has and produced a report … DANGEROUS WATERS: AMERICA’S COAL ASH CRISIS, and it may explain the issue with our unlined ponds and why the danger of unlined pits wasn’t seen years ago. …
    Interestingly it says … “We have essentially traded one form of toxic pollution for another…. As technology has allowed power plants to capture more hazardous pollutants that would have gone into our air, these toxins — particularly arsenic and mercury, but also includes hexavalent chromium, and selenium, as well as aluminum, barium, boron, and chlorine, all highly toxic to human health and demonstrated by studies of peoople who live near the pits.

    There is a national inventory of the more than 1,400 sites in 45 states and record of 200+ coal ash sites with confirmed water contamination. The pits each now have a designated the ‘level of hazard’ based on structure, location etc. VA has 3 ‘Significant hazard’ sites, all Dominion’s; Chesterfield, Bremo Bluff and Chesapeake.

    In 2015 the EPA finalized ash pit requirements. Generally speaking, new and existing disposal units must comply with location restrictions, liner design criteria, structural integrity requirements, operating criteria, groundwater monitoring and corrective action, closure and post closure care requirements, and recordkeeping, notification, and Internet posting requirements. Amendments to the 2015 final rule have been finalized that may affect these frequent questions.
    • The closure of unlined surface impoundments that are polluting groundwater;
    • The closure of surface impoundments that fail to meet engineering and structural standards or are located too close to a drinking water source;

    So I am not sure what VA is arguing about …. other than who should pay. We have 3 sites to deal with fairly soon. The Duke 2014 Dan River Spill was a warning. The Dan River ran grey, as 39,000 tons of toxic coal ash and 27 million gallons of contaminated wastewater flowed into it, threatening the drinking water for eight counties downstream and coating the river bottom with toxic sludge for 70 miles. So was Florence hurricane damage to NC pits.
    It seems only fair that the cost should be spread around. Cheaper coal electricity for years was a customer benefit, but shareholders owe some of those back profits too. Certainly that can be worked out. Should have been worked out with all that excess rate money Dominion kept for who knows what.

    1. Actually, that report was produced by the Sierra Club, not the EPA. Readers can find it here.

      But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth reading.

      The only thing I would say at this point is to distinguish between the threat posed by coal ash ponds under the old regulations and the threat posed under the new regulations. A lot of the criticism I see pertains to the old regulations. But maybe the Sierra Club has something new here. I’ll check it out.

      1. Sierra Club makes more sense for that title…does the link work for you Jim?

        1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
          Reed Fawell 3rd

          Let’s measure this just exposed ash Sierra Club report on Dominion’s alleged malfeasance against this standard:

          “Zero is not and never has been, the goal except in the minds of some..”


          And most, if not all, of those “some” demanding “Zero Tolerance” are an increasingly large segment of the Environmental Movement.

          Hence, the professional Environmentalists’ perennial, total, and implacable opposition to COAL, plus nuclear, plus gas generation, plus gas pipelines, no matter the cost or sacrifice or critical need, a demand made to destroy those industries and solutions in every time and in every place, no matter what – all done in a blind and furious opposition that matches the illogical passion of the most radical of religious and political zealots.

          Let’s see how this particular ash report measures up against the above characterization. I say this not having read the Sierra Club report. So lets apply this simple test here to this example, and see what we find.

      2. TooManyTaxes Avatar

        A report by the Sierra Club is certainly material but it is just the views of one interest group and deserves no more weight than the views of Dominion until tested. That’s why we have regulatory and legal processes — to invite evidence and arguments and to challenge them in an effort to find the actual facts or best predictions and apply the law to the facts.

        I find it suspicious that all of the references in the Virginia section, except for three, are to documents produced by the Sierra Club or other interest groups except for two EPA references and one to a court case. The EPA links were broken. It is certainly proper for a party to a regulatory or legal proceeding to cite to research it or another interest group conducted. However, if that’s the overwhelming bulk of the evidence, I wouldn’t give the filing as much credibility as a report that also cites to research conducted by non-interested parties.

        And without regard to the merits of anyone’s positions on the issues, it is important to note that the views of agency staff are just that unless and until adopted by the affected agency. That is a well-established principle of administrative law.

  15. Jane Twitmyer Avatar
    Jane Twitmyer

    OOPS … Yes, the Sierra Club put out the report. However, the 2018 Coal Ash news centers around results from test wells that the EPA required from the utilities. Earthjustice has a nice list of those results and the AP reported on the results, printed by US News, as did the SELC in Cville.

    Here is a bit of what Dominion reported to the EPA as required …
    • Dominion’s new groundwater well on the banks of Red Cove shows arsenic concentrations 11 times higher than the allowable limit.
    • High levels of chemicals like boron and chlorides… are present in the groundwater at Bremo Power Station, Possum Point Power Station, and Chesterfield Power Station.
    • Groundwater at all three sites show higher than normal concentrations of radium, a radioactive element that can be found in coal ash.

    The list goes on a bit but the point is … “elevated levels of arsenic, beryllium, cobalt, and lithium, including in “sentinel wells” located between Pond D and the Potomac River, further confirming the fact that the pollution is not contained.”

    What might be the source of all the arguments is the successful lobbying the utilities have undertaken in DC and the Administration’s willingness to weaken the 2015 law, which was the first law passed to regulate coal ash storage. I would assume the lessening of restrictions that has, and is occurring, will be challenged.

  16. NorrhsideDude Avatar

    A few points:
    1. The ash sites are not synonymous with Superfund sites. “Superfund” isn’t the be all end all in hazardous sites, these are just sites under CERCLA, there are also RCRA sites, etc.
    2. The Obama EPA finalized the CCR Rule which allows cap in place with monitoring as an option and states CCR is not toxic per waste disposal criteria… in fact it can be used as fill and road base. I suggest you read EPAs CCR website, there is a great relatively easy to understand PowerPoint. It wasn’t a bunch of old white Republican guys making stuff up…. it was a scientific risk based decision.
    3. Historically old unlined landfills, both industrial and municipal, were capped in place by the thousands and we haven’t dug those up. And some have actual hazardous and toxic wastes.
    4. Remediation sites are not all dug up, including Superfund, but are capped and under go monitored natural attenuation. This also includes thousands of gas stations, dry cleaners, and home heating oil releases in Virginia alone, a lot in residential areas. These still have residual contamination in the subsurface. These sites are not zero contamination clean closures but risk based closures.
    5. Most people here are making arguments when they have idea whay they are talking about.
    6. Not all ash is equal. The most recycled ash is dry sorted and used per ASTM specs. Any wet ash would need to be dried and sorted in a purpose built facility. There is bottom ash, fly ash, boiler slag, flue gas desulferization products, etc… These all can be used for different beneficial uses, but must be sorted and dry. Also any ash going to a landfill must also be dry, pass the paint filter test.
    7. Some “toxic” compounds occur naturally at levels above EPAs MCLs…. in Virginia arsenic naturally occurs at levels above the MCL in some areas….
    This stuff isn’t easy. Thus there are well educated engineers, hydrogeologists, lawyers, and consultants working on these issues.

    1. NorrhsideDude Avatar

      And by the way, the MCLs, maximum contaminate levels, are drinking water standards. Essentially a baby could drink thousands of gallons of water contaminated with that compound a year, while remaining a baby for 70 years, and typically have an extremely low cancer risk.

  17. Jane Twitmyer Avatar
    Jane Twitmyer

    Thanks for the good information and yes the Obama regs say a pond that is not leaking can be monitored not necessarily dug up without cause. Virginia did not require inspection of coal ash ponds by state regulators and required only infrequent reporting by owners. That does not seem adequate to me and would not meet 2015 EPA standards.

    Here is an EarthJustice 2014 list of EPA findings. … VA has a total of 30 Coal Ash Ponds and 11 coal ash landfills.

    Average height of ponds exceeds five stories (50 ft). Pond Ratings and Age of Ponds: 13 ponds are unlined. Their average age is 47 years, exceeding the projected lifespan of ash ponds (40 yrs). VA has 8 “significant hazard” ponds, which means that failure of these ponds would cause economic and/or environmental damage. Four of the significant hazard ponds are unlined.
    Focusing on Dominion owned …
    • Bremo Bluff Power Station Virginia Electric & Power Co 3 ponds, 2 unlined and considered Significant hazard)
    • Chesapeake Energy Center Virginia Electric & Power Co 5 ponds, 2 unlined (1 considered Significant hazard) and 1 landfill
    Chesapeake, VA: In 2011, EPA gave a “poor” rating to the plant’s ash and sedimentation pond. The pond is ranked a significant hazard, because a failure would release toxic coal ash to the Elizabeth River, which would flow into Chesapeake Bay.
    The 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.
    • Chesterfield Power Station Virginia Electric & Power Co 3 unlined ponds (1 considered significant hazard) /1 landfill
    • Possum Point Power Station Virginia Electric & Power Co 2 ponds (both considered significant hazard) EPA 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.

    This Green Lady just wants us to deal with those “significant hazards” and to monitor the rest … and … I have not seen what happened to that Golf Course built with coal ash and contaminating nearby wells..

    1. Jane, I don’t think anyone is disputing the fact that the existing ponds are inadequate. What I fail to see from the evidence you are presenting is that the cap-in-place solution is inadequate. The leakage dynamics are very different once the coal ash has been de-watered, consolidated, and capped with a synthetic liner to eliminate the hydraulic pressure created by rain water.

      1. Jane Twitmyer Avatar
        Jane Twitmyer

        Jim, I believe that you are only seeing one side of the argument. Gotta say that the rules are relatively new – 2015 and 2016 – so the arguments continue, in and out of Court. Incidentally that makes me think that Dominion jumped into de-watering Possum Point as fast as possible to avoid the rules that were on their way.

        Anyway Trump’s EPA rewrote the Obama rules to ease the conditions … Trump’s new rules were challenged by NGO’s and in August the Court basically ruled in favor of the NGO’s. “The D.C. Circuit this week struck down parts of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Coal Combustion Residuals (CCR) rule for not being sufficiently protective of the environment.” (Post by Lanham and Watkins)

        “Siding with environmental NGOs, the Court struck down several of the provisions relating to unlined, clay-lined, and inactive coal ash impoundments, holding that those provisions were not sufficiently protective of the environment or were inconsistent with the record….

        First, the Court found that unlined surface impoundments pose “a substantial present or potential hazard to human health and the environment,” and vacated the relevant provision (at 40 C.F.R. § 257.101) to the extent that it allows for the continued operation of unlined surface impoundments. Specifically, the Court examined the record evidence and found that such impoundments pose significant risks to the environment. … the Court implied that only immediate closure or retrofitting of unlined ash ponds may meet the statutory requirement.” Monitoring would not be sufficient, so It would seem that my conclusions were insufficient.

        “The Court similarly found that EPA acted arbitrarily and capriciously in concluding that existing clay-lined surface impoundments should count as “lined.” The Court stated that “clay-lined units are dangerous” and more likely to leak than composite-lined impoundments.”

        Finally, the Court found that EPA’s exemption from regulation of existing unlined legacy surface impoundments is arbitrary and capricious. The Court noted that legacy ponds pose the highest risks…. and the Court vacated the legacy impoundment exemption.”

        “if the D.C. Circuit opinion stands, all active and inactive ponds without composite liners likely have to be closed or retrofitted. … Once EPA issues a proposal for a new rule, industry and others will be able to provide comments on how any potential closing and retrofitting affected impoundments should be managed and to ensure the final rule takes into account the engineering realities associated with retrofit and closure.”

        I would also direct you, Jim, to the fact that one of the Hazardous leaking sites is a landfill, not watered except for some rain … AND to the fact that Virginia has not mapped it’s underground aquifers, info that would be very useful and that we used in CT.

        1. Virginia has not mapped it’s underground aquifers, info that would be very useful and that we used in CT.

          Well, I certainly agree that it would be a good idea for someone to map Virginia’s underground aquifers — especially those in proximity to coal ash ponds, landfills, and other depositories of potentially toxic or carcinogenic substances. Basic data like the existence of underground water and the direction of its flow, one would think, is basic to any discussion about remediation.

  18. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    Jim, I looks to me like Governor Northam owes the ratepayers a new explanation as to why he want charge them the outrageous sum of $5.7 Billion.

    1. Yes, that’s a good place to leave this topic: $5.7 Billion. We inevitably come back to “who pays” and to the consequence of heaping undue cleanup costs on Dominion as though $5.7B were a penalty on the utility for immoral behavior, not a price to remedy an unforeseen harm allowed by prior government regulations. How much harm is it really? Well, for some, that’s a function of who pays — but there’s no free lunch here even if Dominion pays (initially). JB’s challenge has not been addressed: “What I fail to see from the evidence . . . is that the cap-in-place solution is inadequate.”

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