Next Front in the Coal Ash War: Groundwater Testing

water_testingby James A. Bacon

Brian West, whose property backs up the Dominion Virginia Power’s coal ash ponds at the Possum Point Power Station, has had his well water tested three times in the past few months. He got three very different results, leaving him wondering how safe the water is to drink.

The first test, conducted by the Virginia Department of Health, found lead, a metal commonly associated with coal ash, to be safely within Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) limits for drinking water: 3 parts per billion, a fraction of the EPA’s “action level” of 15 parts per billion. However, a second test commissioned by the Potomac Riverkeeper Network found a lead concentration of 549 parts per billion. A third test by the Virginia Cooperative Extension’s Household Water Quality Program logged lead of 120 parts per billion, lower but still over the limit.

Maybe the water is safe, maybe it isn’t. Needless to say, West isn’t taking any chances — he’s not drinking the water anymore.

The widely divergent test results, reported in an excellent article by the Richmond Times-Dispatch, raise critical questions as Dominion seeks Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) permits to close its coal ash ponds at Possums Point and the Bremo Power Station.

Like other electric power companies, Dominion faces a federal mandate to shut down coal ash ponds in a two-step process. Dominion has received DEQ permits to de-water the ponds, a roughly year-long procedure it has commenced at both facilities. The next step is determining what to do with the dry coal ash. Dominion wants to impound it locally, capping it with impermeable material to prevent rain water from seeping through and getting contaminated. But environmental groups, arguing that the caps don’t prevent the leeching of compounds into ground water, insist that Dominion ship the ash to lined landfills. Dominion responds that such a solution could cost rate payers upward of $3 billion.

The sparring over well water tests shows how much uncertainty reigns. One might think that testing water for toxic levels of contaminants would be a straight-forward task. But West’s experience suggests that testing is anything but simple. Results may vary depending upon the methodology used, Dwayne Roadcap ta health department director, told the Times-Dispatch. Was the water sample taken as a “first draw” or after purging the water from the system? What was the sample’s chain of custody? It was not clear from the article how the Department of Health’s methodology might have differed from the Potomac Riverkeepers’.

A related question is whether or the lead in West’s well water originated from Dominion’s coal ash ponds. The Department of Health suggested that the lead might have come from West’s pipes. West rejected that possibility. But if West’s groundwater had been contaminated by the coal ash, would it not have been contaminated by other heavy metals as well? The article makes no mention of cobalt, cadmium, mercury or other substances commonly associated with ash.

Another question is how rapidly groundwater migrates through the proposed coal-ash pits and how fast contamination can spread through the water table. Dominion argues that the movement is very slow, that frequent testing on the perimeter can spot any build-up, and that the company can intercept the water flow by digging ditches, extracting the water and then treating it. Citing tests that indicate coal-ash contamination in Quantico Creek, riverkeeper Dean Naujoks doesn’t trust Dominion to do the job. The Southern Environmental Law Center, which provides legal representation to the Riverkeepers, says it is “still looking into whether there’s a connection between coal ash and the contamination at wells in Possum Point.”

Bacon’s bottom line: If environmentalists can’t persuade DEQ to force Dominion to truck the coal ash to landfills, expect them to fight for the toughest possible water testing requirements, holding out for a strict methodology and independent, third-party testing whose objectivity is beyond reproach. Expect Dominion to agree to almost any testing and mitigation regime that allows the company to avoid the $3 billion expense of shipping coal ash in thousands of truck trips along narrow roads past peoples’ houses to landfills dozens of miles away.

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6 responses to “Next Front in the Coal Ash War: Groundwater Testing”

  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    re: ” A third test by the Virginia Cooperative Extension’s Household Water Quality Program”

    aren’t these the same folks who exposed the bogus FLINT Michigan testing?

    how come we don’t consider them to be political leftists like those GMU guys?

    sounds like another FOIA – I bet once they do that – they’ll also expose the Va Tech folks as leftists!

  2. […] ASH: • Environmentalists in Virginia are girding for future fights with Dominion Virginia Power over how to protect drinking water while safely disposing of tons of […]

  3. TBill Avatar

    At some point there has to be consideration of closing the private wells exposed to landfills of any kind. Also use of bottled water and home filtration. We have “city” water but just in case we use a Brita filter at home for drinking. But there are better filters for contaminant removal (than Brita) readily available on Amazon etc.

  4. LarrytheG Avatar

    re: private wells “exposed”.

    so who pays for that?

    and an observation – ground water is like surface water and rivers in that it’s not in isolated pods – if you contaminate a location – it’s “travels” – it expands to contaminate and pollute beyond the source.

    it’s like dumping pollution in a body of water and expecting the contamination to just stay around the discharge pipe.

    over time – more and more wells would be rendered unusable if the source of the contamination is not removed.

    so when that happens – who pays to replace the wells and replace the water with what? bottled water for drinking.. what about the rest of the household use for dishwashing, bathing, even watering the garden and lawn?

    too many of us keep thinking that if we just dump the pollution it will “dissipate” and for the situations where is does not – then just stop using the water.. or air… move away… etc…

    no one in their right mind expects a pristine environment – it’s always a balance between what is acceptable and what is not – in terms of harm.

    but the idea that we just pollute and give bottled water to those affected.. needs some more thought…

    I thought we learned this lesson way back when the Clean Water Act was passed … but apparently not.. and of course the EPA and “greenies” remain the villains De jure…

    How about this? if you actually want to “close the wells” – we figure out how many people will be effected -as the contamination spreads – and we come up with a cost to mitigate and we compensate the people who have been financially harmed?

  5. Dr J L Coffey Avatar
    Dr J L Coffey

    I spent many years looking at EPA protocols for water testing and last year participated in the Virginia (VT) Extension Service program for testing private wells. EPA insists that water be purged from the home plumbing before collecting samples. The Extension Service program does the same, but it is a self-collected set of samples and also incudes other metals. The ES staff told me that in their experience almost all high lead readings were due to inadequate purging (the high lead readings disappeared when professionally resampled).
    My own experience with tests sponsored by environmental organizations has been that many are deliberately biased (probably at the direction of sponsors/clients). Check out the Loudoun County water quality study a few years ago — EPA provided a “grant” to avoid the requirements of the Data Quality Act and Loudoun County staff eagerly conspired in the bogus testing.

  6. Acbar Avatar

    “Upward of $3 billion” is a lot of money.

    That sounds high to me if all they are doing is moving the dried coal ash residue a few miles. And there are alternatives: Heck, both plants are on rail lines and have sidings right there; why not ship the dirt out to a landfill or abandoned coal mine by rail? Or in the case of Possum Point, by barge? Or for three BILLION dollars, why can’t they pile up the dirt in a heap next to where it lies, line the existing ash pond depression suitably with clay or some other liner, and re-fill the lined pond.

    But OK, so they don’t want to do any of those things. For three BILLION dollars can’t Dominion build a private water distribution system for every house in Prince William County east of Quantico?

    It’s not that I’m unsympathetic; Dominion here is simply trying to clean up a mess from the past. But Dominion doesn’t sound like it’s playing its cards face up on the table either.

    Certainly, three BILLION dollars ought to pay for every test ever invented by EPA or DEQ to get the facts straight; and if Mr. West is shown to have fabricated his results, I hope they seek reimbursement from him, too.

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