Tag Archives: Coal ash

You May Pay A North Carolinian’s Coal Ash Costs

An illustration of the coal ash de-watering and treatment process at Bremo Bluff power station, which is now out of favor. Source: DEQ website.

The cost to Dominion Energy Virginia customers for recycling coal ash or moving it into more secure landfills is growing, because the proposed bill now recognizes that Dominion’s North Carolina electricity customers cannot be forced to pay by the Virginia General Assembly or the State Corporation Commission.

This phrase has been added to the current substitutes for House Bill 2786 and Senate Bill 1355: (v) any such costs that are allocated to the utility’s system customers outside of the Commonwealth that are not actually recovered from such customers shall be included for cost recovery from jurisdictional customers in the Commonwealth through the rate adjustment clause.  

Dominion Energy North Carolina’s customers in the northeastern part of that state depend on Virginia-based generation, including those coal plants, but the General Assembly so far seems fine with billing us for their share of these costs.  Why?  Absent that the company’s shareholders might have to pay it.   Continue reading

The Coal Ash Deal: More Proof that Virginia Is Becoming New Jersey

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

A deal cooked up between Governor Ralph Northam and legislative leaders, with the support of environmental groups and the acquiescence of Dominion Energy, will require Dominion to excavate coal ash ponds at four of its power plants, recycle at least 6.8 million cubic yards, and move the rest to modern landfills. The requirement, according to the Washington Post, will add about $1 billion to the $1.7 billion cost of Dominion’s preferred approach. The cost to ratepayers is not to exceed $225 million a year (the Richmond Times-Dispatch figure) or $5 per month per typical retail customer (Washington Post).

What I find disturbing is the totally false premise upon which the legislation is based: that landfilling of coal ash is necessary because existing coal ash ponds are leaking heavy metals. This assertion, made endlessly over the past year, provides the justification for the legislation. If you want proof that Virginia politically is becoming New Jersey, now you’ve got it.

Here are just a few recent examples of misleading rhetoric:

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A Third Way for Coal Ash Disposal

EnCAP-IT schematic shows how coal ash can be stored on-site above ground level in synthetically lined cells, or bunkers. Source: “Macroencapsulation: Obtaining on-site clean closure,” Geosynthetics magazine.

By Dominion Energy’s most recent estimate, it will cost between $2.77 billion and $3.36 billion to recycle the utility’s 30 million tons of coal ash or bury it in synthetically lined landfills — as much as $2 billion more than burying it in place. Environmental groups say the risk is justified to offset the risk that toxic levels of heavy metals might leak into nearby rivers and streams.

But what if it were possible to reduce the environmental risks while also slashing the cost to rate payers? Shouldn’t the General Assembly be considering that option?

John Swenson, founder and managing partner of Henrico-based EnCAP-IT Solutions of VA, has developed 12 patents around a coal-ash disposal process he calls macroencapsulation, which combines the cost-efficiency of cap in place with the risk reduction of removal to landfills. He’s frustrated because he can’t get either Dominion Energy or environmental groups to consider his approach. Now a compromise solution backed by Governor Ralph Northam effectively removes the option from consideration.

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Rage, Ruin, And You Pay The Bill In Full

I hear hurricanes a blowin’
And I know the end is coming soon
I fear rivers overflowing
I hear the voice for rage and ruin

Bad Moon Rising, Credence Clearwater Revival

The acronym we all must learn for the 2019 General Assembly session is “CCR,” but it doesn’t stand for Credence Clearwater Revival.  Coal combustion residuals – coal ash – are the environmental poster child of the moment, with the apocalyptic vision a hurricane or other event flooding the material into rivers.  John Fogerty, the prophet.

Legislation dealing with the issue will probably get good coverage in the standard news media, and Senator Scott Surovell’s Senate Bill 1533 may get through to Governor Ralph Northam for signature.  What is not mentioned in his or the other CCR bills, and not being reported, is who will pay for this process if the General Assembly orders the ash moved or recycled or both.

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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. Continue reading

Yes, “Blatant Fear Mongering” Is a Fair Description

Waterway in Dutch Gap Conservation Area depicted in SELC report. If you were a thirsty hiker, would you dip your canteen into this water? Would you drink water like this all year long?

A new report by the Southern Environmental Law Center finds that pollution from Dominion Energy’s Chesterfield Power Station may be leading to an increased health risk for some of the 200,000 visitors to the nearby Dutch Gap Conservation Area. States a press release announcing the release of the study:

There are elevated noncancer hazards and cancer risks for recreational visitors who interact with areas where contamination from the coal ash ponds is migrating into Dutch Gap Conservation Area. … Within these contaminated areas, cancer risks may be up to 10 times higher than the upper limit of what EPA considers “acceptable” cancer risk from polluted sites, and nearly 1,000 times higher than target risk levels.

Or, as summarized by the Richmond Times-Dispatch:

The consultant estimated that elevated levels of toxins such as arsenic in the park could result in an additional 700 to 900 cases of cancer per 1 million people. The standard for pollution remediation set by the Environmental Protection Agency sets the limit at 100 cases per 1 million people.

“It is time to move beyond this claim that there is no health or environmental risk at Chesterfield,” said Nate Benforado, attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center. “This report raises some serious red flags about the long-term safety of leaving ash in leaking, unlined pits next to a popular park.”

The Times-Dispatch does quote Dominion spokesman Robert Richardson as criticizing the study. The SELC, said Richardson, “should be ashamed of itself for blatant fear mongering. They have taken our data that we shared with state and local officials, our customers, and the general public and compared it to a standard that has no legal or scientific relevance to water suitable for recreational use.”

Let’s take a closer look at the study. Unfortunately, the T-D article does not explain what standards Richardson is referring to. A reading of the study, prepared by Terra Technologies Environmental Services, makes it obvious. The report uses drinking water standards as a measure to assess the risk to recreational visitors to the park. To quote from the study:

Several water quality criteria (WQC) were selected as screening levels. The public water supply (PWS), risk-based tapwater screening levels (tapwater RSLs), and maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) were used as screening levels, in addition to the VA Other Surface Waters (OSW) criteria on the assumption that if the waters were acceptable as a long term drinking water source, all potentially relevant contaminants of concern (COPCs) would be identified.

The report justified the application of drinking water criteria to park visitors on the following grounds:

During swimming, boating, fishing, and other water contact activities — activities that are all offered at Dutch Gap — small amounts of water can be ingested and skin exposure can allow uptake of some contaminants as well. In addition, people visiting or camping in the area could wash their hands, bodies, or camp dishes using the surface water. Therefore, using the PWS to assess potential screening level risks due to incidental contact is appropriate.

Here’s the problem: Drinking-water standards such as Public Water Supply (PWS) standards, are based on the assumption that people drinking the water do so on a continual basis throughout the year. The SELC study is applying those standards to campers, hikers, and kayakers who visit Dutch Gap episodically and may or may not imbibe any water at all. Indeed, common sense suggests that almost no one drinks water straight out of the river. The idea that minute quantities of toxins and carcinogens might enter the body as the result of the water’s contact to the skin has no medical basis. And the volume of toxins and carcinogens that might enter the body after river water has been used to clean dishes, is likely too small to even measure. If there is evidence to suggest otherwise, it is not presented in the report.

So, Richardson’s umbrage, to my mind, is entirely justified.

Comparing apples to oranges. There is one more important point to be made here. While the level of contaminants is, in fact, elevated (although not to the point to represent a threat to recreational visitors to Dutch Gap) and arguably does pose a threat to aquatic wildlife (a point the SELC could legitimately point to), it arises from a decades-old system for storing coal ash. But SELC is not using the elevated contaminant levels merely to criticize the legacy storage system, which Dominion has proposed replacing by de-watering the coal ash, consolidating it into a single impoundment, and capping it with a synthetic liner to prevent rain water from migrating through. SELC wants Dominion to recycle the coal ash, remove it far from the river, and place it in a lined landfill at a potential additional cost of a billion dollars or more.

Maybe Dominion’s proposal will prove effective at eliminating all water contamination, maybe it won’t. SELC has argued plausibly that ground water might migrate through a small portion of the impoundment and leach minute quantities of heavy metals from the ash. But the potential for water contamination from Dominion’s proposed cap-in-place remedy indisputably would reduce the risk of contamination reaching the James River. It is irresponsible and reckless to stoke fears of hundreds of cancer deaths — wildly hyped fears, at that — based on contamination resulting from the aging coal ash storage system that is being phased out.

I have always considered SELC to be one of the more reliable environmental organizations whose attorneys and spokespersons are careful with the facts and shun hyperbole and unsubstantiated statements. This study is a sad departure from the group’s usual standards. The SELC’s hyping of this report can be fairly described as fear mongering. The SELC can do better.

Update: The SELC objects to my characterization of the study. The application of drinking water standards occurs only as a first step of the report as a way to screen out contaminants that need not be considered and focus on the ones that pose a threat to health and the environment. The second step adopts a standard EPA methodology. Read more about their reaction here.

Yeah, Recycling, Landfilling Coal Ash Will Cost Billions

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

Under the gun to clean up its coal ash ponds, Dominion Energy hired a consulting firm to develop estimates of what various alternatives would cost. The alternatives preferred by environmentalists and activists — recycling the combustion residue and burying the rest in lined landfills far from rivers and streams — would cost billions of dollars, the study concluded. The environmentalists and activists said the study was flawed. The General Assembly ordered Dominion to issue an RFP to deliver a verdict from the marketplace. The verdict of the marketplace has come in. The alternatives preferred by environmentalists and activists will cost billions of dollars — but maybe not as many billions as Dominion’s worst-case scenario.

To be precise, the cost would range between $2.77 billion and $3.36 billion, according to a statement issued by the company today. The bids, if implemented would recycle about 45% of the ash into cement, wallboard and other products. The rest of the ash would be placed in a landfill over a 15-year period.

Dominion has accumulated millions of tons of coal ash, which can leak heavy metals that are toxic in sufficient concentrations, in ash ponds at its Chesterfield, Possum Point, Chesapeake, and Bremo power stations. To meet Environmental Protection Agency guidelines, the utility has de-watered the coal ash at Possum Point and Bremo but has been prevented from consolidating and capping the material on site, as it originally proposed. Environmentalists are concerned that groundwater might migrate through the impoundments and leach heavy metals that could reach rivers, streams, or well water.

Dominion already recycles 500,000 tons of coal combustion byproducts each year, but critics have argued that it could process more — Virginia actually imports coal ash from other states and overseas.

The company received 12 proposals for recycling ash for each of the four power stations. The total cost in the $3 billion range is somewhat less expensive than the $2.6 billion to $6.5 billion indicated by Dominion’s earlier study, but it is significantly more costly than critics had hoped for.

Dominion will report its bids to the General Assembly for follow-up.

In other coal ash action, Dominion announced that it had reached a Memorandum of Understanding with the state to close and monitor the coal ash ponds at the Chesapeake Energy Center. Also, groundwater monitoring at six power stations — Chesterfield, Possum Point, Bremo, Yorktown, Clover and Virginia City Hybrid Center — have been found to have no impact on drinking water or public health. Further, Dominion said it would submit a regulatory filing to recover costs associated with “managing coal ash at several power stations.”

“We plan to take a close look at this report and hope that it provides a more realistic take on recycling options in Virginia than the assessment Dominion provided last year,” said the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) in a statement today. “We know that coal ash can pose risks to our health and environment, and recycling offers a smart, cost-effective solution. It’s time Virginia joins the other states that are turning coal ash closure into a win-win.”

The SELC also lauded the Chesapeake Energy Center agreement, which it said will require the facility to meet the same standards as all coal ash facilities across the state. Said Deborah Murray, senior attorney, Southern Environmental Law Center: “This agreement is a strong signal that the administration is taking coal ash remediation in Virginia seriously. Dominion tried to keep most of the coal ash at the Chesapeake site—roughly 2.1 million tons of ash in leaking, unlined pits—off the radar, but under this agreement the company’s closure plan must deal with this ash in accordance with the standards set forth in the EPA’s Coal Combustion Residuals Rule.”

Update: The Richmond Times-Dispatch is reporting a larger number for the potential cost of recycling/landfilling than I did.  I should have made clear that the cost I reported, up to $3.36 billion, applies if all the work is given to a single bidder. The higher figure reported by the Times-Dispatch, $5.642 billion, applies if material at all four sites is recycled by individual bidders. I reported the lower number because I could see no reason why anyone would go with the higher-cost approach.

Coal Ash Lessons from Hurricane Florence

Flood waters from Hurricane Florence spilled over an earthen dike at Sutton Lake at the L.V. Sutton Power Station.

Last month pounding rains from Hurricane Florence eroded a Duke Energy landfill, releasing some 2,000 cubic yards of soil and coal ash. Although Duke declared that the majority of displaced ash was collected in a ditch and haul road surrounding the landfill, North Carolina news media reported the “possible release” of material into the L.V. Sutton Power Plant cooling lake. Later, floodwaters from the Cape Fear River inundated the power station with a foot of water in places.

Environmentalists emphasized the danger of Duke’s practice of disposing of coal ash near waterways throughout North and South Carolina. “After this storm, we hope that Duke Energy will commit itself to removing its ash from all its unlined waterfront pits and, if it refuses, that the state of North Carolina will require it to remove the ash from these unlined pits,” said a Southern Environmental Law Center spokesman.

As I predicted here, the incident was sure to impact the debate over coal ash disposal in Virginia. And it has. The headline to a Richmond Times-Dispatch article today tells the tale: “Hurricane’s lessons add pressure for solution to Dominion coal-ash storage.”

Hurricane Florence “punished North Carolina and swamped at least one utility coal ash storage pond in its path next to the Cape Fear River,” stated the article. Then followed a quote from SELC attorney Nathan Benforado during a hearing of a General Assembly Labor and Commerce subcommittee: “Hurricane Florence is a wake-up call.”

A wake-up call? Benforado does have a point. Regulators need to consider the dangers of rare but recurring extreme weather events for coal ash disposal just as they do for electric grid planning. But a lot of relevant material didn’t make it into the Times-Dispatch article. Virginians need to know… the rest of the story.

First the background: The General Assembly subcommittee is studying how Dominion Energy Virginia should dispose of 27 million cubic yards of coal ash buried in ponds and pits at four of its coal-fired power plants: Possum Point, Bremo, Chesterfield, and Chesapeake. Under old Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations, Dominion had dumped the coal combustion residue into large pits and mixed the material with water to keep down fugitive dust. After two major spills at other locations, including one at a Duke facility, the EPA wrote new regulations designed to prevent more spills. Dominion proposed de-watering its coal ash, consolidating the material into a single pit at each facility, and capping the pits with a synthetic liner to keep off rainwater.

SELC has raised at least two sets of concerns about the Dominion proposal. First, says the environmental group, there is nothing to prevent underground water from migrating through the ash pits, collecting heavy metals leached from the ash, and reaching public waters. Second, the proposed pits are located close to public waterways, hence they are vulnerable to erosion or inundation during extreme weather events like Hurricane Florence. SELC wants Dominion to remove the coal ash by truck or rail and bury it in lined landfills on higher ground. Dominion has said that the SELC proposal could cost billions of dollars. SELC has responded that recycling the ash into cement and cinderblocks could cut the cost dramatically. Dominion is now evaluating that alternative.

So, what exactly happened at Duke’s Sutton plant? Did the spillage and inundation create a human or environmental hazard? And knowing that conditions at each power plant are unique, is Sutton comparable to any of Dominion’s power plants? What lessons can we extract?

Duke spokesman Bill Norton told me that the hurricane caused incidents at two power plants — Sutton and, less publicized, H.F. Lee.

At Sutton the company had extracted four million tons of coal ash for placement in a landfill — precisely the solution the SELC and other environmental groups had called for. About three million tons remained when the hurricane hit. Norton described the scene as an “active construction site” and, thus, more vulnerable than the cap-in-place arrangement it has proposed for some of its other facilities. Pounding hurricane rain eroded the containment berm, releasing coal ash equivalent in volume to two-thirds that of an Olympic swimming pool. Flood waters from a swollen Cape Fear River also inundated the cooling lake  and overtopped a steel wall erected as a temporary structure. Other than the landfill erosion, however, the coal ash remained stable and the waters receded.

Water samples taken from the Cape Fear River showed that the floodwaters had washed away some “cenospheres,” lightweight, hollow beads comprised of alumina and silica that are environmentally benign, but not the heavier combustion residue which contains potentially toxic heavy metals. None of Duke’s tests found heavy metals in the water that exceeded state safety standards. Independent tests conducted by the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality came to the same conclusion.

At the H.F. Lee power plant site, the coal ash basins had been inactive so long that they had grown over with forest. These basins also were inundated by floodwaters but Duke and NCDEQ tests have shown no heavy metal levels exceeding state safety standards. Continue reading

Bacon Bits: In with the New, Out with the Old

In with the new…

Data Center Alley too hot to handle. The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) has sold 424 acres west of Dulles International Airport to data-center developer Digital Realty Trust for an eye-popping $236.5 million — $558,000 per acre. MWAA will place $207 million in a segregated account used to reduce costs that airlines pay to do business at the airport. The transaction expands the large and growing data-center presence of Digital Realty in Loudoun County, reports the Washington Business Journal.

Virginia’s next big solar project? Solar developer Community Energy has applied to build 125-megawatts in solar capacity in Augusta County, reports PV magazine. To offset concerns about neighborhood impact, Community Energy plans to surround the facility with a buffer of vegetation and put into place measures to diminish the limited audio output. Instead of purchasing the land, the power company is leasing it from landowners, providing farmers an ongoing revenue stream rather than a lump-sum payment.

Out with the old..

Gutted newsrooms. Ned Oliver with the Virginia Mercury has quantified the shrinkage of news staff at Virginia’s largest daily newspapers in recent years. After quietly laying off another eight newspaper employees at the beginning of the month, the Richmond Times-Dispatch newsroom has gone from 42 news and sports reporters in 2010 to 26 today, from nine to six photographers, and from 20 to 13 editors. The Virginian-Pilot has dropped from 67 reporters to 33, 35 editors from to 22, and eight photographers to five. Newsroom staff at the Roanoke Times has eroded by 35% to 25 reporters, 11 editors, and three photographers.

“Meanwhile,” writes Oliver, “there is still no clear model for metro and community newspapers to make up for the loss of all that ad money to digital giants like Google and Facebook.”

Tarheel coal ash overflow. In an event sure to impact the debate over coal ash in Virginia, heavy rains from Hurricane Florence eroded a coal ash facility at a Duke Energy power plant near Wilmington, N.C. The utility is investigating the possible release of about 2,000 cubic yards of the material — enough to fill two-thirds of an Olympic-size swimming pool, according to the Herald-Sun. It was not clear whether any of the ash, which contains traces of heavy metals, reached public waterways.

The release reinforces the necessity of removing coal ash from unlined, uncapped containment ponds where electric utilities have been restoring the coal-combustion residue for decades. Environmental Protection Agency regulations were designed to prevent incidents like this by consolidating and capping coal ash ponds. While environmentalists, regulators and utilities haggle over whether it’s better to store the material in lined landfills, a process that could take two to three decades, existing containment ponds remain vulnerable to extreme weather events like Florence.

Eat My (Coal) Dust!

Possum Point coal ash ponds

In a possible early-warning sign of what may be in store for Virginia electricity consumers, North Carolina regulators have decided that Duke Energy could charge their Tarheel rate payers the first $778 million chunk of an estimated $5 billion in coal-ash cleanup costs. The sum does not include $100 million in two mismanagement penalties for practices that “resulted in cost increases greater than those necessary to adequately maintain and operate its facilities,” reports the Associated Press.

Dominion Energy Virginia will likely incur coal-ash disposals costs in the $1 billion to $4 billion range, although no firm figure will be available until the state issues solid-waste permits for a disposal plan. Dominion says that de-watering the coal ash, consolidating the material in a single pit at each power plant, and covering it with a synthetic liner will protect the public at a fraction of the cost of the alternative, favored by activist groups, of hauling the ash to landfills with greater environmental protections.

North Carolina’s Attorney General said he would go to court to stop Duke from passing along its disposal costs to rate payers. “This case will ultimately be decided by the North Carolina Supreme Court,” he said.

The coal-ash disputes in North Carolina could prefigure in part what happens in Virginia. State regulators must approve disposal plans for millions of tons of coal ash that accumulated legally over the decades at Dominion’s Bremo, Possum Point, Chesterfield, and Chesapeake power plants. Presumably, Dominion will file with the State Corporation Commission (SCC) to pass along as much of that cost as possible to ratepayers.

What makes Dominion’s situation different from Duke’s is that Dominion’s base electric rates were frozen between 2015 and 2018, and Dominion has already written off a portion of disposal costs incurred during that period. Also, under terms of recently enacted grid-modernization legislation, Dominion now will plow surplus earnings into renewable-energy, energy-efficiency and grid-upgrade projects. The public has not yet been informed how multi-billion charges for coal ash-disposal costs would be treated from an accounting viewpoint, what impact they would have on Dominion profits, or how the costs would ripple through to grid modernization.

I cannot foresee any circumstances in which the SCC would dun Dominion for mismanagement penalties. The company has complied with state and federal laws and regulations as well as judicial rulings throughout the process.

Tarheel Coal Ash Data Could Inform Virginia Debate

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

Last week I argued that Virginians need more information about the disposal costs and health risks associated with coal ash ponds before the General Assembly rushes ahead with a law requiring Virginia’s electric utilities to recycle and/or landfill their coal ash. Some of that data could come from the experience of Duke Energy in North Carolina as well as utilities in South Carolina, which are farther along in the process than Dominion Energy Virginia.

Travis Fain, a former Daily Press reporter who has moved on to WRAL.com, reported yesterday how Duke Energy has blasted its opponents in a regulatory filing, asserting that they leaned on “simplistic crutches,” false analysis, and a Pollyanna hindsight to argue against the company’s bid to raise electricity rates sufficient to cover its coal as clean-up costs. Duke Energy’s foes have some not-so-nice things to say about the utility, too. The bottom line for Virginia is that political and regulatory facets of the coal-ash controversy are further along in North Carolina than they are in the Old Dominion. Many of the same issues are likely to surface here, and economic data from the Tarheel State could illuminate our debate.

Writes Fain:

The company complied with existing laws and industry standards when it left wet ash in unlined pits for decades, they said. At one point “the lack of a liner was considered a feature, rather than a flaw” because soil would filter out contaminants, the company said. Impact on groundwater wasn’t initially a concern “because the ash basins were built more than a decade before the adoption of any federal or state regulation related to groundwater corrective action,” attorneys argued.

That same commission will decide now whether Duke Energy Progress shareholders or its customers will cover the majority of costs for a cleanup that has since been ordered by changes in state and federal law. Between Duke Energy Progress and its sister company, Duke Energy Carolinas, parent Duke Energy has asked for more than $1 billion a year in increases. …

“They fault the Company for not doing something that no one was doing, but at the same time washing their hands of any responsibility of paying for that which they – in 20/20 hindsight – wish the Company had done,” the utility’s brief states. …

The Attorney General’s Office referenced to a number safety reports, including an inspector who found “open cracks” and other problems in safety features at the H.F. Lee Plant in Goldsboro in 1999. That inspector returned in 2004 to note that “those same problems had not been repaired and still existed,” the Attorney General’s Office said.

If Duke had been proactive, cleanup costs “would have been far less than the costs are now and will be in the future,” the Attorney General’s Office said. …

The Public Staff also proposed that Duke Energy Progress split coal ash cleanup costs 50-50 with customers, something the company rejected.

Coal ash cleanup costs alone would add nearly $183 million a year to customer bills under Duke Energy Progress’ proposal.

Dominion has said it would cost roughly $4.5 billion to landfill all the coal ash at its Bremo, Possum Point, and Chesterfield plants. Dominion foes have charged that its estimates are inflated because the utility could reduce its costs by recycling coal ash into cement, bricks and pavers. Basically, we have a he-said, she-said situation. Although both Dominion and the Southern Environmental Law Center have hired consulting engineers, no non-aligned third party has weighed in with a judgment.

One obvious step, it seems to me, would be to compare Dominion’s situation to Duke Energy’s. Duke Energy says the cleanup will cost $183 million a year. It’s not clear how many years we’re talking about — likely 15 at least, maybe longer. If so, that implies a total cost of  between $3 billion to $4 billion. As I recall, Duke Energy has to remove more tonnage than Dominion, so its removal costs per ton are likely lower than Dominion’s estimates.

However, it is dangerous to make simplistic comparisons. Costs vary widely power station by power station, depending upon a number of factors, and direct comparisons may or may not be appropriate. Furthermore, the properties of coal ash vary, and Duke Energy’s material could be more, or less, suitable for recycling. Finally, Duke Energy has first-mover advantage in recycling its coal ash. Its coal ash will flood the Mid-Atlantic market, arguably depressing prices and making the recycling option less attractive to Dominion.

The article hardly answers all the questions one might have, but it seems clear that we are talking about disposal costs in the billions of dollars. Whether recycling/landfilling is an economical option in Virginia remains to be seen. Hopefully, the General Assembly won’t pass law in the absence of authoritative information.

Virginia Wallowing in Ignorance about Coal Ash

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

Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, has co-sponsored legislation that would require Dominion Energy to remove more than 25 million tons of coal ash from its Chesterfield, Bremo, Possum Point and Chesapeake power stations, reports the Chesterfield Observer.

Senate Bill 1398introduced by Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, applies to any owner or operator of a “coal combustion residuals unit.” The bill specifies that any coal ash stored in an unlined pond that is located within a half-mile of a floodplain or river must be excavated and disposed of either by recycling into cement or removal to a landfill.

The concern of environmentalists, residents living near the power plants, and many elected officials is that Dominion’s proposed solution — burying the coal ash on-site and capping it with an impermeable liner — will not prevent groundwater from seeping through the pits, picking up contaminants, and migrating into rivers and streams. Reinforcing their fears are the findings of riverkeeper groups of elevated levels in nearby groundwater and surface waters of potentially toxic heavy metals found in coal ash.

A Dominion-commissioned study by AECOM, an international engineering firm, found that Dominion’s proposed bury-in-place solution would cost between $480 million to $1.7 billion (not including judicial remedies ordered for the disposal of ash at the Chesapeake plant). By contrast, the most economic solution for removing and landfilling the coal ash would run about $4.15 billion. Critics say that AECOM overstated the cost of recycling and removal.

For all that has been written about coal ash disposal, there is much that we don’t know. Given the current state of knowledge (at least the knowledge that has seeped into the public policy debate), it’s hard to see how a rational, well-informed decision can be made.

There is one thing we can say for certain: contaminants from coal ash do leak in minute quantities into the groundwater, and groundwater does make its way into rivers and streams. Beyond that, there is very little certainty. Two questions arise: Does the contamination reach levels that are hazardous to human health (generally measured in a few parts per million)? Will Dominion’s proposed remedy of capping the coal ash piles reduce the level of contamination to safer levels?

Adjudicating a lawsuit filed by the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club against Dominion Energy Virginia for coal-ash pollution at Dominion’s Chesapeake plant, U.S. District Court Judge John Gibney found that (a) the coal ash ponds at Chesapeake did contaminate groundwater and the nearby Elizabeth River, but (b) the concentration of potentially toxic compounds was so low that it did not pose a threat to human health.

Heavy metals and other pollutants are often found naturally in groundwater, rivers and streams. Zero contaminants — the equivalent of distilled water — is neither necessary nor desirable. Some elements, such as zinc, are toxic at elevated levels but are necessary to sustain human and animal life in minute traces. The purpose of public policy should be to keep the concentration of these chemicals below the threshold at which they pose a threat to human and aquatic health — not to achieve zero contaminants.

Environmentalists have conducted tests in public waters near Dominion’s coal ash pits and have found non-safe levels of chemicals on numerous occasions. However, those tests reflect the condition of Dominion’s coal ash impoundments in their current form. Following standard industry practice, the utility buried the coal ash in multiple pits at each location and covered them with water to keep them from drying out and creating a dust problem. Rainwater falling on the water-laden pits created hydrostatic pressure that elevated the movement of water through the coal ash and increased the rate of contamination.

At each location, Dominion proposes to drain the water from the ponds, consolidate the near-dry coal ash into a single pit at each location, and cap the pit with a synthetic barrier. That barrier will prevent rainwater from reaching the coal ash and eliminate the main source of hydrostatic pressure. Also, in theory, the coal ash also will be buried above the water table, thus foreclosing the potential for groundwater to migrate through. In practice, however, as the Southern Environmental Law Center has shown from documents filed by Dominion, low-elevation portions of the Chesterfield impoundment will intersect with the water table. In other words, while most coal ash will be inert, a small portion will be exposed to the groundwater.

It should be within someone’s power to compute (a) the rate of flow of the groundwater, (b) the volume of water that will be exposed to coal ash, (c) the extent to which groundwater will pick up contaminants, (d) the volume and toxicity of groundwater that will reach rivers and streams, and (e) the resulting increase of potentially toxic chemicals in public waters. If the level of contamination in the River remains below Environmental Protection Agency thresholds, it makes little sense to spend billions of dollars to remove the material to a landfill. If the level of contamination exceeds safe levels, then action is justified.

The problem is that we don’t know the answer to the question. The Surovell-Chase bill presupposes that Dominion’s preferred, cheaper remedy would be inadequate. But we don’t know, and we can’t reach a judgment based on tests conducted during the old regulatory regime.

Environmental groups are arguing that utilities in North Carolina and South Carolina are pursuing the recycling and landfilling approach called for in the Surovell-Chase bill. If recycling/landfilling makes economic sense for them, they say, it should make sense for Virginia. That argument is buttressed by the testimony of companies offering to recycle as much as half of Dominion’s coal ash, some of it potentially at a profit to the utility.

AECOM examined four potential recycling technologies and concluded that Dominion couldn’t come close to recycling its coal ash at a profit. What the study did not do, as best I can tell, is determine whether it would be cheaper to recycle or load into a landfill. In other words, even if Dominion lost, say, $30 to $100 per ton through recycling, would that still be cheaper than trucking the coal ash to a landfill? The report did not make that calculation. Moreover, the report allows for a wide variation in costs. It makes a big difference if the cost of beneficiation (as the recycling process is called) at the Bremo station is $96 per ton or $217 per ton. Likewise, it makes a big difference if the coal ash sells for $30 a ton or $60 per ton. The AECOM discussion of recycling economics makes only the roughest of rough cuts. It does not provide enough data to make an informed decision.

The same can be said of the environmentalists who are critical of the AECOM report. We are told that Carolina utilities are recycling and landfilling their coal ash. But an obvious question arises: at what cost? The coal ash issue is even more emotional in North Carolina than in Virginia because North Carolina is where one of the nation’s worst coal ash spills occurred. Is Duke Energy under more intense judicial and political pressure to pursue the recycling/landfilling strategy to remedy its coal ash problem regardless of cost? The cost per ton of recycling/landfilling in North Carolina may be public information, but it hasn’t entered into the public discourse in Virginia.

The problem with the Surovell-Chase bill isn’t that it’s a bad bill. It’s that the public has no way of knowing whether it is a good bill or bad bill. We don’t have the data to make an informed decision. Perhaps the General Assembly should make it a priority to get that information before voting the bill up or down.

Update: Haha! Looks who’s wallowing in ignorance! Juliana Condrey informs me that SB 1398 was from the 2017 session.

Weighing the Coal Ash Options

Coal ash pit at the Chesapeake Energy Center

Meeting EPA deadlines constrains Dominion’s options for disposing of coal ash at four of its power stations.

Under Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rules published in 2014, Dominion Virginia Energy must find a way to safely dispose of nearly 30 million tons of coal ash within 15 years. After intense controversy over how best to proceed, the General Assembly ordered Dominion to conduct a detailed study of the alternatives. That Dominion-commissioned study, written by engineering firm AECOM, was published in November.

Not surprisingly, given that Dominion has been locked in a running battle with environmentalists and community activists over coal ash disposal for about two years now, the study has settled nothing. On the one hand, AECOM affirmed that Dominion’s original plan — burying and capping the coal ash on-site — makes the most sense. On the other, the utility’s foes have attacked the study as inadequate on multiple grounds. The General Assembly will take up the issue in the 2018 session with few definitive answers.

Despite the seeming inability of the opposing sides to agree on anything, the AECOM study does illuminate the controversy. While Dominion foes criticize parts of the report, they are silent on others. Silence can be interpreted as tacit acceptance of some conclusions, or at least an unwillingness to contest them. For example, foes had long argued that the utility should transport the coal ash by truck or rail to lined landfills. AECOM contends that such a remedy would add billions of dollars to the cost of ash disposal. Since publication of the study, critics have dropped that line of attack and focused instead on the need to recycle the ash into concrete, bricks, and pavers — an approach that in theory could reduce the volume to be disposed of by half.

For decades, Dominion and other electric utilities had stored combustion residue from their coal-fired power plants in large pits on-site. Massive spills of coal ash into public waters, first in Tennessee and then in North Carolina, prompted the EPA to enact stricter standards for the storage of the material. A primary goal was to prevent another calamitous spill.

EPA regulations give electric companies five years plus two five-year extensions — a maximum of 15 years — to comply. Reacting quickly to the coal ash rules, Dominion proposed de-watering the ponds, consolidating the ash from separate ponds into one pit at each power station, and then capping the pits with a thick synthetic liner to prevent rain water from percolating through and picking up contaminants along the way. Arguing that Dominion’s plan would not prevent groundwater from migrating through the pits, environmental and activist groups insisted that Dominion dispose of the ash in landfills sealed from the groundwater and/or recycle the material into cement and other products.

Under orders from the General Assembly, Dominion hired AECOM to study the alternatives. AECOM contends that the on-site impoundments will limit the long-term risk of contaminating groundwater and will withstand everything from flooding and storm surges to hurricanes and earthquakes. The engineering firm found that the so-called closure-in-place option cost far less than transporting the material to landfills. And in a site-by site analysis of four Dominion power stations — Chesapeake, Bremo, Possum Point, and Chesterfield — it concluded that recycling coal ash into concrete, bricks and pavers would lengthen the process of cleaning up the ash by many years.

Environmental groups have been highly critical of the study on two broad grounds. They say the AECOM report failed to address the disposal of more than two million tons of coal ash at the Chesapeake facility. And they contend that the engineering study gave short shrift to the option of reducing the volume of coal ash at Bremo, Possum Point, and Chesterfield.

The Chesapeake Power Station

According to the AECOM report, the cost of removing 60,000 tons of material from a pit at the Chesapeake facility designated the “Bottom Ash Pond” is paltry compared to that of the other power stations. Alternatives range in cost from $10.6 million to $13.3 million, although as much as $161 million might be needed to pay for corrective measures where contaminants have leaked into surrounding waters. Dominion, says the report, has committed to recycling and removing the material from the Bottom Ash Pond.

However, the AECOM report does not address disposal of coal ash contained in the far larger pit known as the “Historic Pond.” In a statement posted on its website December 15, the Southern Environmental Law Center made the following retort to the AECOM study:

In a glaring omission, Dominion Energy’s recent coal ash assessment fails to include any information about the large, unlined coal ash ponds leaking arsenic at its Chesapeake Energy Center, contrary to the requirements of the new Virginia law passed earlier this year. Senate Bill 1398 requires Dominion to assess and evaluate its coal ash facilities to provide information to the public, legislators, and regulators about how best to close the sites. But Dominion ignored the 2.1 million tons of coal ash in the unlined surface impoundment at Chesapeake Energy Center known as the “Historic Pond,” which contains roughly two-thirds of the ash at the site.

“This is clearly an attempt by Dominion to ignore the problem with its unlined coal ash ponds,” said Senior Attorney Deborah Murray in a letter to the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. “We can’t pretend this ash does not exist. There is no legitimate reason for Dominion to have excluded this pond from its assessment, and the Department of Environmental Quality should require Dominion to remedy this omission immediately.”

Portions of the coal ash in the historic pond lie six feet below sea level, where it is saturated by groundwater and prone to releasing potentially toxic chemical compounds. “Dominion may not pick and choose the laws with which it will comply,” added SELC attorney Nate Benforado.

The SELC statement refers to a July ruling in which U.S. District Court Judge John Gibney found that contaminants from coal ash at Chesapeake were leaking into the Elizabeth River. According to Dominion spokesman Rob Richardson, Gibney ordered Dominion to conduct water, sediment and biological monitoring around the Chesapeake Energy Center, and also to submit by March 2018 a revised solid waste permit for the removal of an additional three million tons of coal ash at the Historic Ash Pond. 

Dominion is not ignoring the wishes of the General Assembly by refusing to address those three million tons in the AECOM study, says Richardson. The Historic Ash Pond was closed nearly three decades ago, which means it is not subject to regulation under the EPA’s coal ash rules. Although Gibney found in March that traces of potentially toxic compounds had leaked into the river, the volume was so minute that there was no evidence of harm to human health.

Rather than compel Dominion to remove the coal ash, Gibney ordered the utility to propose corrective measures in an application for a solid waste permit. His ruling commanded Dominion and the Sierra Club Virginia Chapter to submit a “detailed remedial plan” that states, among other things, the timing of Dominion’s application for a permit. The Sierra Club and Dominion submitted that plan in July outlining extensive monitoring of the waters and wildlife around the Chesapeake facility, and Dominion has begun collecting the data.

The ultimate remedy at Chesapeake will be determined by Judge Gibney, not the Department of Environmental Quality, says Richardson. Therefore, the coal ash in the Historic Ash Pond needs to be considered separately from the coal ash subject to the Department of Environmental Quality.

Bremo, Chesterfield and Possum Point

While Gibney wrestles with how to dispose of coal ash at Chesapeake, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) is charged with determining what to do with the much larger volumes of coal ash at Bremo, Possum Point and Chesterfield. Those power stations are storing 6.2 million tons, 4.0 million tons, and 14.9 million tons respectively. The AECOM study examines several approaches.

Closure in place. The low cost solution at each site is “closure in place” — consolidating the coal ash from multiple ponds into a pit, capping the pit with an 18-inch synthetic cover, adding a six-inch layer of soil, monitoring the groundwater, and taking “corrective measures” if groundwater toxins surpass allowable levels. The combined cost would run between $480 million and $1.7 billion for the three power stations, AECOM estimates. The main variable is how much money the company will have to spend on mitigation. AECOM’s low-cost plan would take three to five years to execute, well within the time frame mandated by EPA regulations.

While capping the coal pits would prevent rainwater from percolating through to the water table and picking up contaminants along the way, Dominion critics contend that closure-in-place would allow groundwater to migrate through lower levels of the ash pits. They want Dominion to remove the material to landfills with lined pits, sealing off the coal ash from any chance of groundwater contamination, as electric utilities in North Carolina and South Carolina are doing at some of their power stations in low-elevation areas.

Truck and rail. Trucking coal ash in 18- to 22-ton-capacity dump trucks to landfills miles distant from the power stations would require literally hundreds of thousands of trips on narrow roads, subjecting residential neighborhoods to traffic disruption, dust, truck emissions, and potential spills. In the case of the Possum Point station, AECOM assumes that 150 truckloads could be loaded daily, equating to a loaded truck leaving the site every three minutes, eight hours a day, five days per week. That process would take years longer than the closure-in-place alternative: nine years for Possum Point, 13 years for Bremo, and 29 years for Chesterfield. Dominion would be unable to meet the 15-year EPA deadline (which includes two five-year extensions) at Chesterfield. And the cost would approach $4.5 billion, making it billions of dollars more expensive than closure in place.

AECOM also examined the scenario of removing the coal ash by rail. That alternative was even more problematic, requiring added expense and time to build rail-loading facilities at the power stations. AECOM estimated a total cost of $7.3 billion, and the length of time to remove the coal ash as nine years for Possum Point, 13 years for Bremo, and 24 years for Chesterfield. The firm also looked at removing the coal ash by barge, but found that approach only remotely practical at Possum Point, and even there, it would cost $1.7 billion, far more than the truck and rail options for that facility.

Regional landfill. AECOM explored a fourth alternative: building a regional landfill from scratch. By reducing the distances that trucks have to travel, the regional approach would cost somewhat less than hauling the coal ash to private landfills: about $4.15 billion. But buying the land, getting the permitting and preparing the landfill would add six years to the disposal process, 21 years in all, during which the ash ponds would remain open.

From Ponds to Concrete

Coal ash is widely used in the United States as a supplement adding strength and durability to concrete and in making bricks and pavers. Recycling is regarded as environmentally benign because it encapsulates the material in a matrix that will not dissolve or release the potentially toxic heavy-metal compounds commonly found in ash.

Utilities in North Carolina and South Carolina have recycled coal combustion residue for years, and now they are ramping up their commitment in order to work down their own coal ash stockpiles. Environmentalists have suggested that Dominion consider recycling coal ash for the same reason: to cut disposal costs by reducing the volume of material to bury.

Coal ash comes in different varieties, and it often must be treated, a process referred to as beneficiation, to alter its chemical properties before it can be mixed with cement or used in other applications. At present Virginia has no beneficiation facilities. But several companies that conduct beneficiation in other states are eager to do business with Dominion.

University of New Hampshire professors Kevin Gardner and Scott Greenwood, engaged by SELC to study the coal ash issue, estimated that sufficient demand exists in Virginia for Dominion to recycle 16 million tons, more than half of its coal ash. In their report, “Beneficial Reuse of Coal Ash from Dominion Energy Coal Ash Sites,” They write:

Nationwide, coal ash is used in 75% of all concrete used for transportation projects, significantly reducing project costs. The Virginia Department of Transportation estimates that fly ash is used in 60% to 70% of all concrete used in transportation projects in the state, all of which, to the best of our knowledge, is currently fully sourced outside of the state due to the lack of beneficiation facilities operating in Virginia.

As an example of what beneficiation can accomplish, Gardner and Greenwood pointed to a beneficiation facility at the R. Paul Smith Power Plant in Maryland, which has removed 1.5 million tons from the power plant’s coal-ash landfill. The ash is expected to be mined out by 2020, allowing the area to be regraded, vegetated and closed, thus eliminating any remaining environmental risks. “As mining nears an end,” notes the report, “cement manufacturers are actively seeking similar stockpiles for continued reuse in the future.”

The economics of recycling can vary according to the properties of the coal ash and specific conditions at each power station, such as the volume to be recycled, local demand for the recycled material, and the cost of transporting the refined product to customers. None of these are insuperable barriers, says the Gardner-Greenwood report.

Representatives from the concrete industry have stated the need for high quality ash sources in the Virginia region and have indicated a willingness to set up long-term contracts for ash suppliers. Success in the mining and beneficiation of legacy ash in South Carolina has spurred the planning and planned groundbreaking for multiple new beneficiation plants in North Carolina in 2018, demonstrating economic viability. This combination of available technology, vendors with experience, a strong market and economic feasibility together make it clear the beneficial use of legacy ash from the Dominion Energy sites is possible, feasible, and given the environmental benefits, an overall preferred approach.

Not so Fast…

AECOM studied the feasibility of building coal-ash processing facilities at Bremo, Possum Point, and Chesterfield, as well as building a regional processing facility at Chesterfield. According to its calculations, costs would range as follows:

Bremo — $96 to $217 per ton
Chesterfield — $1oo to $285 per ton
Possum Point — $118 to $225

By contrast, contends AECOM, fly ash is selling on average for $30 to $60 per, on top of which Dominion would have to pay $7 to $33 per ton for transportation. In sum, the cost of beneficiation ranges from 1.5 times to nearly 5 times the market price for the ash, making it a major money loser in Virgina. Moreover, says AECOM, there is wide variability in the market, so demand for beneficiation cannot be accurately estimated. And the volume of coal ash entering the Virginia-Maryland-D.C.-North Carolina market is projected to exceed supply by 2019 as North Carolina utilities begin pushing more recycled material onto the market. Added volume from Dominion would create an even greater imbalance and depress prices.

If the decision were made to proceed with beneficiation, AECOM says, Dominion would need to conduct detailed cost and marketability discussions with beneficiation vendors to nail down firm commitments on processing rates and costs.

Coal Ash into Bricks

In a letter written to Dominion, Belden-Eco Products (BEP), developer of a process for converting fly ash (coal ash emanating from a smokestack) into bricks and pavers, corrects what President Robert W. Ittman terms “critical errors or misconceptions” in the AECOM study.

BEP’s patented process creates a superior ceramic brick that could be sold profitably into the $3.5 billion-a-year brick and paver market. The company asserts that its solution — building its facility close to Dominion’s ash ponds and shipping its products to market by rail or barge — would cost less than either landfilling or cap-in-place. The company says that it can generate far more than the $30 to $60 estimated by AECOM from a ton of fly ash — more like $119 to $214 per ton.

“BEP’s bricks would generate a positive income for Dominion of $1 to $55 per ton of fly ash over the course of the project,” states the letter. Partnering with BEP would generate $10 million in Net Present Value for Dominion over the life of the plant, a 7% internal rate of return.

However, the BEP letter does not address a critical issue raised in the AECOM study. AECOM estimated that installing a brick plant with a throughput of 300,000 to 550,000 tons per year — similar to the 500,000 figure cited in the BEP letter — it would take 30 to 53 years to excavate the coal ash ponds at Chesterfield. Dominion is required to devise a solution that removes the ash within 15 years.

Conclusions

A key factor driving Dominion’s decision to bury the coal ash in place is the necessity of finishing the clean-up within 15 years. Solutions that require making big capital investments with long permitting and construction lead-times won’t accomplish that aim. As a legal matter, Dominion must comply with the rules established by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and administered by Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality. The point of the regulations, after all, is to prevent another coal ash spill that could result in environmental damage on a scale far more calamitous than the slow leaking of contamination through groundwater migrating through the coal ash ponds.

While recycling may not be a viable option at Dominion’s Chesterfield plant, it might work elsewhere. The AECOM study indicates that it would take only 11 to 17 years to excavate the ash pond at Possum Point using the Belden technology, and even fewer years using other technologies. Perhaps different solutions for each of Dominion’s four power stations could be cobbled together that recycles some of the coal ash, caps some in place, and trucks some to landfills off-site. Such a variegated solution would not be entirely satisfying to either Dominion or its foes, but it could reduce the potential environmental hazards without running up the tab by billions of dollars.

Anyone Remember the Coal Ash De-watering Controversy?

Bremo Power Station de-watering test results. Click for legible image.

Environmental controversies are flying so fast and furious in Virginia these days that it’s hard to keep track of them all. As for last year’s disputations, they are quickly forgotten. Remember, for instance, the wrangling over Dominion Energy’s plans for de-watering coal ash ponds at its Bremo and Possum Point power stations?

After intense negotiations, riverkeeper groups, the Southern Environmental Law Center, Dominion, and the Department of Environmental Quality settled upon a protocol for treating and monitoring the quality of effluent before it entered the James River and Quantico Creek. How has the arrangement worked out? The absence of headlines this year is one clue. The water-testing results posted on Dominion’s website provide another.

The tests, which cover pH, suspended solids, oil & grease, hardness and 15 heavy metals and other compounds, show that the water treatment process is cleaning the water to the point where the presence of most pollutants is impossible to detect.

At the Bremo station, only arsenic and chloride appeared in measurable quantities among the three samples taken in early May, and the concentration of both chemicals is less than one-tenth of the Environmental Protection Agency’s permit levels.

Possum Point power station de-watering test results. (Click for larger image.)

At Possum Point, five chemicals appear in large enough quantities to be detectable, but all are safely within prescribed bounds. One chemical, thallium, nudges up close to the permit limit but does not go over.

I don’t purport to have any expertise in these matters, but it looks as if the arrangement is working as it should. If you want to browse through a year’s worth of test results, click here.

This is far from the end of the story, of course. Dominion still must obtain permits for de-watering its Chesapeake and Chesterfield facilities. The results at Bremo and Possum Point suggest that Dominion has the de-watering process firmly under control.

However, the company has yet to receive solid-waste permits for disposing of the coal ash after it has been de-watered. Dominion wants to pursue a cap-in-place approach while environmental groups want the utility to bury the material in landfills. That issue will take longer to resolve. Among the uncertainties is determining the extent to which underground water picks up contaminants while migrating through the coal ash pits. Getting answers will require a different testing protocol than the one used for the de-watering process.

The Right Way to Test for Coal Ash Contaminants

A North Carolina riverkeeper inspects testing samples of coal ash taken from the Dan River.

A North Carolina riverkeeper inspects testing samples of coal ash taken from the Dan River. Photo credit: WRAL.

So, it looks like the there will be a pause in the solid-waste permitting process for Virginia coal ash. Governor Terry McAuliffe had submitted an amendment to legislation that, if approved, would require Dominion Virginia Power to compile more information on contamination around its coal ash sites and study alternative closure methods before the state issues the permits. Now Dominion has decided to go along, which means political opposition to the idea could evaporate.

“We concur that it is a prudent course of action to seek and consider an evaluation of the assessments on the appropriate closure methods based on the individual features of each site before seeking necessary solid-waste permits,” wrote Dominion CEO Thomas F. Farrell II. “Dominion finds the proposed amendments to Senate Bill 1398 to be workable, and is committed to completing the site assessments before pursuing solid waste permits regardless of the outcome of the legislation.”

McAuliffe’s amendment would restore key provisions to a bill co-sponsored by Sens. Scott A. Surovell-D-Fairfax, and Amanda F. Chase, R-Chesterfield, whose legislative districts include Dominion’s Possum Point Power Station and Chesterfield Power Station, each of which has millions of tons of coal ash to dispose of. (See the Richmond Times-Dispatch story here.)

Dominion had originally opposed the testing and study provisions, which were stripped out by the House of Delegates. But if the power company drops its opposition to McAuliffe’s amendment, as Farrell’s letter indicates, Surovell and Chase likely will get their way.

According to the bill summary, HB 1398 will require owners of coal ash ponds (1) to identify water pollution emanating from the ponds and address corrective measures, and (2) evaluate the feasibility of “clean closure.” Clean closure would entail removing the coal ash from ponds where it has been stored to lined landfills. Dominion has estimated that the cost of landfilling could amount to $3 billion, but environmental groups have argued that the cost would be much lower if the utility recycled the material as an additive to cement and other products.

Bacon’s bottom line: Pausing the permitting process to get a better handle on what’s happening at the coal ash ponds is a good idea. Frankly, despite considerable testing by both Dominion, environmental groups and even Duke University, little can be said with certainty about the process at each of Dominion’s four sites by which groundwater migrates through the coal ash and contaminates either well water or nearby rivers and streams.

Any testing regime must be rigorous enough to provide definitive answers. The last thing we need is set of ambiguous results that Dominion and environmental groups try to spin to their advantage in another contest of P.R. and political clout. Any credible testing program should recruit outside experts, perhaps from Duke or perhaps from a Virginia university, who can identify the questions to be answered and what protocols will provide definitive answers.

Dominion has conducted tests on its property and found little evidence of contamination at Possum Point, Chesterfield and the Bremo Power Station, but a federal judge recently used Dominion data to conclude that coal ash its closed Chesapeake plant was contaminating groundwater. Testing by riverkeeper groups of groundwater and surface waters just outside of Dominion property show elevated levels of heavy metals which, at sufficient concentrations, can be toxic to aquatic life and human health. Additionally, Duke University has conducted extensive testing in North Carolina and Virginia using “forensic tracers” that have found elevated levels of heavy metals in groundwater near Bremo and Chesapeake. But other Duke tests have found that elevated levels of the carcinogen hexavalent chromium, also associated with coal ash, is endemic in piedmont groundwater and in many cases cannot be attributed to the coal combustion residue.

Complicating any analysis is the fact that trace levels of heavy metals and carcinogens are frequently found in groundwater and surface water as the result of natural processes. Levels vary depending upon local geology. The existence of trace elements of heavy metals in groundwater near coal ash ponds is not in itself proof that the heavy metals came from the coal ash. The trace elements could be ubiquitous in the area, but no one knows unless tests are conducted some distance from the power plants. Ideally, any testing regime for Dominion’s coal ash ponds should adjust for background levels of contaminants.

Another complication is ascertaining the movement of groundwater. For example, the water from several wells near Possum Point have shown elevated levels of heavy metals. It is easy to deduce from the proximity of the wells to coal ash ponds that the contaminants come from the ponds. But to demonstrate the point conclusively, one must show that the groundwater migrates from the coal ash ponds toward the wells, and not in some other direction. To make that proof, it is necessary to conduct extensive sampling and create detailed maps that mark the geographic scope and elevation (in feet above sea level) of the underground water and determine the direction of the water flow. Only if it can be documented that underground water is migrating from the coal ash pond toward the wells can one reasonably conclude that the coal ash is to blame for elevated levels of well-water contaminants. If the water is migrating away from the wells, the well-water contaminants probably have another source.

Adding another layer of complexity to the analysis is estimating how much contamination the groundwater picks up while migrating through coal ash. Dominion maintains that its coal ash pits do not come into contact with the water table; the deepest part of the ponds have a higher elevation than the underground water table. However, using Dominion’s own maps, the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) contends that the bottom reaches of the coal ash ponds at Bremo and Chesterfield intersect with the water table. If the SELC is right, groundwater that migrates through a portion of the coal ash could pick up contaminants along the way.

The question then arises, how long must the water be in contact with the coal ash in order to pick up trace metals? That is a function of the chemistry of the coal ash, how tightly or loosely the metals are bound to inert materials, and the speed of water migration, which depends upon the permeability of the clays and rocks. If the groundwater comes into contact with only a small percentage of the coal ash for a short time, the leeching of heavy metals could well be minimal.

If it can be demonstrated that measurable levels of metals leach into the groundwater, another question must be answered: What volume of contaminants, and how rapidly, does the groundwater feed into surrounding rivers and streams? While U.S. District Court Judge John A. Gibney Jr. found that Dominion’s Chesapeake Coal ash ponds did contaminate the groundwater and that the groundwater did reach the Elizabeth River in violation of the Clean Water Act, he also found no damages because the contaminants were so diluted by the massive water volume of the river that aquatic and human health were unaffected. Continue reading