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.

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13 responses to “Yeah, Recycling, Landfilling Coal Ash Will Cost Billions

  1. The irony here is that the same “conservatives” who are complaining about the Amazon deal and the coal ash cost are mum on the cost freeze that led to millions in overcharges – already collected – as well as lowered corporate taxes as a result of the tax law change – that they also do not want to give back.

    Between these two things – the coal ash cost, over a few years, could be paid for by these two sources of revenues without any more charges to customers and then force Dominion to justify on an ROI basis any “improvements” to the Grid they want to do.

    I’m shocked that so-called fiscal conservatives who fret about things like economic development incentives for companies like Amazon are largely mute when it comes to Dominion’s financial impacts on ratepayers and taxpayers.

    What in the world is going on when Twitter is on fire from Virginia Conservatives over Amazon and I don’t think I’ve seen word one from them on why the cost of coal ash cleanup should not be absorbed by Dominion and paid for with its overcharges.

    This is a no-brainer in my view and it’s just inexplicable that those who say they don’t like preferential treatment of businesses – have a blind eye towards Dominion keep the excess profits and tax rebates to spend as they please while fretting about those terrible costs for cleaning up coal ash.

    This is what makes folks cynical about Richmond. If those guys down there really had a spine – the excess profits and tax rebates would go for coal ash cleanup forthwith.

  2. Why do this at all? Frankly, other than the risk of a major washout into a nearby river, which can be prevented (see new Chesapeake deal), what actual benefit is achieved by moving a pile of ash from one place to another, from our neighborhood to somebody else’s, or by encapsulating it into a paving stone? Is there any real evidence that coal ash is actually a health threat as now stored? Especially if people with nearby wells get public water instead? A few billion dollars spent elsewhere could clean up more dangerous pollution, couldn’t it?

    As to Larry’s ramblings, nothing in the law prevents Dominion from spending money (and it already is) on this issue, and what it spends reduces any excess profits. So as usual you are just….rambling. If these steps are taken, the cost will rest on all ratepayers – $10 or $20 (or for large users a major amount) on each monthly bill for 20 years or more. To eliminate what I think may be an imaginary or greatly exaggerated threat. If I can use it for concrete blocks and build a house, how dangerous is it? Please.

    • And how could I possibly forget that the harshest critic so far on the Amazon deal is Democratic Socialist Delegate Lee Carter? Like the issues around the Dominion, the debate over massive incentives to private companies (uh, you love to complain about eminent domain) cut across party lines.

  3. All along I’ve been trying to say:
    (1) Excavation is extremely expensive
    (2) I do not want to buy house made with cinder blocks made with sham-recycled coal wastes, because I already had one house like that in NJ and it was ugly basement with smelly inclusions popping out of the concrete walls all the time. A weak spot in USA’s enviro-regs is all the stuff put into concrete.
    (3) Transporting all of this stuff to new landfills is a problem in itself
    (4) We must case-by-case review each site, but capping place will probably be good in most cases.
    (5) Yes groudnwater may be contaminated where the ash is sitting. But that contamination is not going away this century even if the ash goes away.

    Also, the extreme hype about a landfill side failing in the recent NC hurricane is an issue for design consideration re: sloping/diking etc, but is not a eco-disaster. The eco-disasters come from huge dams of water built for the sludge storage, when the dams fail, that is a serious eco-disaster. Planners definitely need to think through worst case scenarios and make sure the worse case failure is mitigated safely.

  4. P.S.-
    Regarding using imported “coal ash” for concrete, there is a certain special portion of coal ash– dry fly ash — that has value for cement manufacture. Dry fly ash is what they call a “pozzulan” which is needed for the cement recipe. Whether or not fly ash use in concrete is environmentally sounds by today’s standard, I do not know.

    But Dominion’s coal waste is not dry fly ash, it is non-useful mess of mixed coal wastes, mixed with water.

    Aside from the “beneficial” use of fly ash, my understanding and/or expectation is quite a bit of waste gets blended into cement as a filler as a hazmat disposal expediency allowed by EPA.

    So when Jim say’s Virginia imports coal ash, I would ask what specific materials are we importing? Actually I do not need to ask, because I can guess it may not be a happy answer for me. The happy answer would be we are importing only dry fly ash that meets the quality specs of cement manufacture.

  5. Could coal ash be used in the making of asphalt? I don’t know; that’s why I’m asking.

    • Asphalt per se is made from the residual portion of crude oil (bitumen). Then I believe stones are blended in to get the so-called construction asphalt we use on the roads. I have heard of crushed glass use, but not coal ash, but coal ash can go anywhere as a filler as an expediency.

      • PS- I know in New Jersey the plan was to use coal ash as the road bed under the asphalt, but again I am not sure that is “good” use it is just a cheap disposal option.

  6. True conservatism is about accountability. Personal accountability for the decisions you make in life. Corporate accountability for fixing the messes you make – especially those which impinge on the property rights of others. Governmental accountability to be transparent and spend within the means available to government.

    Dominion has been piling up toxic ash next to sensitive waterways for decades. That was stupid then and it’s stupid now. Our political elite in Richmond stuff Dominion’s money into their pockets so they just look the other way. Given the need for a proper clean up Dominion wants to hedge and the clown show in Richmond is all too happy to help with that. One can only assume that Bookbinder’s is doing a roaring business these days.

    Per some on this blog, North Carolina is the northernmost southern state. How have they handled this problem? By shipping the ash far inland and putting it into sealed pits. In North Carolina neither corporations nor unions are allowed to contribute to state political candidates, PACs or party committees. That’s right … the limit is $0. Good ole southern, conservative North Carolina. Their legislature decided to ship the coal ash. Why? It’s not because North Carolina is Democratic and Virginia is Republicans. Both states have Republican control of the legislature with Democratic governors. North Carolina’s Republicans even had a super-majority in the legislature which could override the governor’s vetos.

    No … the big difference is that North Carolina operates as a state wide democracy while Virginia is a Richmond-based Kleptocracy.

    Spend the money. Ship the sludge. Fix the problem. Move on to the next issue.

    • It was only a few years ago that EPA mandated the changes in coal ash management, so it is still a work in progress. EPA said cap it.

      I agree it’s OK to look at NC for guidance. I do not think NC are excavating all coal wastes, just some hot button cases, but let’s find out.

    • North Carolina also maintains an independent utility regulatory process. Dominion rates in North Carolina are (surprise, surprise) noticeably lower for the same basic operation. But I’m still not sure the cap in place approach is not sufficient.

  7. The coal waste issue should be an object lesson in how we handle energy issues in Virginia.

    I have mentioned before that it was considered “best practice” in the 1980s for bottom ash (as opposed to fly ash) to be disposed of in lined ponds with any effluent treated to meet appropriate water quality standards. When the disposal area was full it was capped with a material impermeable to water. This prevented heavy metals and other contaminants from leaching into the ground water (as Dominion’s ponds have done for decades) and were designed to deal with extreme weather conditions so that effluents to the surface waters from the ponds would not exceed water quality standards.

    If this had been done at the time, it would have cost a few million dollars and avoided decades of contamination and billions of expense today.

    I don’t know what happened at the time, but I have observed the pressure that Dominion is exerting on the DEQ to take shortcuts in protecting water quality from the threats of major pipeline construction in the state. It is not unusual for our energy company executives to decide upon less than optimal solutions because they save their company money in the short-term.

    If similar influence was exerted to reduce the requirements to protect water quality resulting from coal ash disposal, much of the disposal costs that are estimated today should be the responsibility of the shareholders. They benefited from the earlier shortcuts, so they should contribute to the costs today.

    Taking money from the cash stash that belongs to ratepayers is not an appropriate solution.

    I agree with DJR, true conservatism and integrity is about accountability. The corporate leaders of my youth cared about the communities they served. They were not to be plundered for short-term profits.

  8. Several questions …
    Jim said ..”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.”
    Are we still doing that and where does the ash go?
    What about who gets paid for taking over some other state’s environmental issue? VA imported sewage sludge to spread on our farms. They have been for years at least until last year.
    What about the coal plants that are continuing to operate? Does their current cost reflect the ash issue?

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