Is Recycling a Practical Solution for Coal Ash?

State Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Mount Vernon, recommends coal ash recycling.
State Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Mount Vernon, recommends coal ash recycling.

State Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Mount Vernon, represents homeowners living near Dominion Virginia Power’s Possum Point Power Station, which is in the process of disposing of millions of cubic yards of coal ash accumulated over the years. The coal combustion residue, he told the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Conservation & Natural Resources this afternoon, is a “booming, growing, ongoing problem.”

Dominion proposes consolidating the coal combustion residue from five ponds into one, which it will cap with a synthetic liner and monitor for leakage of potentially toxic heavy metals. But tests have found elevated levels of metals associated in the groundwater around the facility, and Surovell wants better protection for his constituents as well as other Virginians living near other coal ash sites. He has submitted a trio of bills that would require Virginia electric utilities to evaluate the options of coal ash recycling and/or disposing of the material into a synthetically lined landfills with leachate collectors.

Numerous coal ash ponds are scattered around Virginia, and Possum Point is furthest advanced in the regulatory process for closure. “This is new to everyone in the United States,” Surovell said, adding that he wants to make sure Dominion’s remedies don’t “blow up in a hundred years.”

William L. Murray, director of public policy, Dominion Virginia Power.

In response William L. Murray, Dominion’s director of public policy, told the committee that Virginia’s Department for Environmental Quality (DEQ) is staffed with “experienced, apolitical regulators.” Surovell’s proposals, he said, amount to an alternative regulatory regime. “The fundamental premise is that there’s something wrong with our current regulatory structure. We respectfully disagree with that.”

Electric utilities have been storing coal ash for decades in impoundments, mixing the residue with water to keep the particles from blowing away. Responding to highly publicized spills of coal ash into Tennessee and North Carolina rivers, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued rules in late 2015 requiring electric companies to de-water the coal and safely dispose of the dry material. In Virginia, the DEQ is responsible for issuing waste-water and solid-waste permits tailored to the conditions of each site.

Dominion got off to a quick start but ran into opposition last year from environmental groups and local landowners, who said that its plans to dispose of the coal ash on-site would contaminate local water supplies. Tests around Possum Point have shown elevated levels of metals associated with coal ash, but a Duke University study suggested that trace metals in groundwater also can occur naturally. Although it is it unclear if the coal ash ponds were to blame, Dominion has offered to replace wells for seven homeowners with municipal water.

Electric companies in North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia recycle, or plan to recycle, large percentages of their coal ash by selling it for use primarily as a cement additive to make concrete. At many sites, they will truck the ash to state-of-the-art landfills with synthetic liners, caps, and leachate collection systems. The Southern Environmental Law Center, which has handled litigation in Virginia and the other states, contends that Virginia should adopt the same practices.

There is considerable commercial demand for coal ash in Virginia, said Surovell. Indeed, there is so much demand that concrete manufacturers are importing the material from China and Poland. It makes no sense to import coal ash when there is plenty available at Dominion’s power stations, he said. Because the ash often requires an intermediate processing step known as beneficiation, recycling the residuals could create jobs in the commonwealth, he said.

One of Surovell’s bills, SB 1383, would require all Virginia electric utilities to “recycle as much of their stored coal ash as is imported into the Commonwealth each year, on a pro rata basis.” The bill would allow the utilities to recover its treatment costs from the taxpayers. Mimicking President Trump, Surovell told the committee, “I think this bill could be huuuge, and create tons and tons of jobs. … I want to make Virginia great again.”

A second bill, SB 1398, would require utilities to assess their closure options — closure in place, recycling, landfilling — and submit their evaluations for review by DEQ and the public. A third, SB 1399, would require “coal combustion by-products be removed for disposal in a permitted landfill meeting federal criteria and that the impoundment site be reclaimed in a manner consistent with federal mine reclamation standards.”

Murray said that Dominion already recycles about 700,000 tons of coal ash a year generated by its coal plants in Mecklenburg, Chesterfield and Virginia City, as well as one it co-owns with the Old Dominion Electric Cooperative in Clover. The material is used in concrete, wallboard and even bowling balls.

If concrete manufacturers are importing coal ash from overseas, why isn’t Dominion recycling all of its coal combustion residue? The circumstances vary from location to location. The problem at Possum Point, said Murray, is that the company would have to truck literally thousands of loads of the material along a residential road, creating issues with congestion, noise and diesel exhaust. It doesn’t take much imagination to think that Surovell’s constituents would object to that solution.

Share this article


(comments below)


(comments below)


8 responses to “Is Recycling a Practical Solution for Coal Ash?”

  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    re: ” alternative regulatory regime.” IF Surovell is advocating the very same regulatory regime used in other states – I’d say it is Virginia DEQ and Dominion that are onto an ” alternative regulatory regime.”

    I do agree that the General Assembly should not be directing Dominion to do “recycle” rather than telling them that they’re not going to leave it in the ground and they can decide the best way which may be recycling but the message should be – they’re going to get it out of the ground because over time – it’s going to contaminate the groundwater around it and the only question is when and how far the contamination will be.

    I know they’ll crank up their PR machine into overdrive to “explain” to people that DEQ is a “good” regulator doing what is necessary – but the plain fact is that DEQ’s standards are weaker compared to other states…

    And let’s also talk about the coal ash at the Chesapeake facility that is actually IN the groundwater… if I read right.

    probably in steamroller mode for Mr. Surovell.

    I wish for just once – Dominion could find it within their corporate soul to actually try to do the right thing… maybe we’ll all get shocked.

    the cost of the cleanup belongs to each one of us… not Dominion…. we all owe our share of the cleanup… just as right now – we all also pay to clean up other superfund sites. I bet it’s cheaper to clean it up now than later on.

    this is funny – Dominion wants to bury electric lines – and charge ratepayers over 40 years to pay the cost – but they can’t do that with coal ash cleanup?

  2. Recycling comes in all kinds of varieties including good recycling and sham recycling. Coal ash is a complicated subject because there are various components, which I do not fully understand. There is fly ash, bottom ash, and sulfur/lime recovered ash or slurry from sulfur removal. My simplified understanding would be that fly ash has some value in concrete/cement manufacture (which I would ask if that it is really advisable environmentally re: contaminants or just one of the cheapest things to use).

    Once you mix all that other stuff up in a slurry and put it on the ground it is still “recyclable”. Just about anything can be thrown into cement and I do not want to go there. OK I will go there, I tend to think that’s probably EPA’s little secret all the wastes they’ve essentially directed to cement plants (as they banned other disposal options).

  3. LarrytheG Avatar

    in cement – it is much more stabilized and much more resistant to “washing” than if it was in a crushed/pulverized form.

    so you could put it in cement then crush up the cement and you’d be basically back to square one.

    but if you put in in a block of cement – it’s going to take a long time for weather and rain to erode it – at a much much slower rate – and only one thin layer that sits over the many inches below is susceptible to “washing” like if it was used in a sidewalk or road but if it is used in cinderblock with a roof hanging over it or an outside cover or paint – then it is essentially “sealed”.

    the problem with raw coal ash is that it’s pulverized and not sealed… and it’s often in a pile that rain can fall on and circulate through.

    Dominion is proposing to put liners on top but not the bottom and some of their piles are already below grade and in the water layer or close enough to it that there is little room for error over the longer term.

    modern landfills put liners on the bottom and top – and put drain pipes in the lower layer to capture liquid and then haul it away – called “leachate”.

    the amount of leachate is monitored so they know if the top liner has deteriorated and needs repair or replacement. It requires continuous monitoring to know the status and be able to act if the top layer becomes compromised.

    Dominion wants to cover the top, not the bottom so there is no way to really know if the top layer has become old or compromised because any leachate just would percolate through and then into the groundwater.

    they’re counting on the public not understanding and seeing the issue as one in the weeds between them and the”environmentalists”.

  4. djrippert Avatar

    “The problem at Possum Point, said Murray, is that the company would have to truck literally thousands of loads of the material along a residential road, creating issues with congestion, noise and diesel exhaust. It doesn’t take much imagination to think that Surovell’s constituents would object to that solution.”

    Hmmmmm …..

    How does the coal (which gets burned leaving coal ash) get to the plant? While I don’t know the actual ratios I think I’d ask Dominion something like this …

    If you can get 100 tons of coal into Possum Point why can’t you get 1 ton of resulting coal ash out/

    Me thinks Dominion may be full of …. well, coal ash.

  5. LarrytheG Avatar

    DonR is dead on accurate. Every coal plant has or had rail access as well as rail facilities to unload rail cars … those same rails can take ash away – and there are existing landfills in Va that have rail access.

    Dominion could itself set up a land fill for all the ash or use regional landfills or just contract it out.

    Dominion, with DEQs help is stonewalling. If Dominion had coal ash in NC or other states – they’d be hauling it … not saying it could not be done or it was too expensive… in Va, not so much.

  6. LarrytheG Avatar

    Are we compelled to pick the absolute lowest cost response to this – as decided by Dominion?

    This is what we call an externality.

    This is why we have a history of polluting with the justification that we’d make the product “too expensive” if we did not pollute.

    this is why the EPA came into existence because prior to that – that “we have a right to pollute” justification ended up with Kepone in the James, PDBs in the Shenandoah, a dozen other superfund sites in Va and worse.

    So what Dominion is doing now is a similar logic – that the ONLY acceptable way to deal with the coal ash is the least expensive way – right now.

    I do not think that this is Dominion’s decision and under normal circumstances in other states – it would not be – but in Virginia – our agency to protect the environment comes up short and a little too compliant with the wishes of those who would be regulated when they big and politically potent.

    We need to clean up the coal ash – and we need to pay for it. We all use electricity – we all participated in the pollution and the time has come to pay the true cost, protect future generations by doing the right thing now.

    Dominion is litigating each site and ignoring the most obvious sites that are already polluting the groundwater – so DOminion chooses to focus on the other sites – and as far as I can tell – not move on the sites that there really is no question about – like Chesapeake. And what is DEQ doing? What is DEQ doing about Chesapeake – right now?

    I think this is just egregious… where is the responsibility here – both corporate and state regulator?

  7. […] Is Recycling a Practical Solution for Coal Ash?, Bacon’s Rebellion, 2/2/17. […]

Leave a Reply