Dominion Energy’s coal-fired Chesterfield Power Station, shown in September of 2017, is the largest fossil-fuel power plant in Virginia. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)
In each of the past two legislative sessions, the General Assembly has hit the pause button on Dominion Energy’s plans to close ponds containing millions of tons of coal ash at four sites across the state.
Some state lawmakers and environmental groups have pushed the reluctant utility to dig up or recycle the ash instead of capping it in place, where critics warn the toxic heavy metals it contains could seep into waterways for years to come.
And on Wednesday, a rapid-fire series of developments in that years-long tug-of-war have set the stage for the coming General Assembly session to finally settle the question.
A new report shows pollution at the Dutch Gap Conservation Area from Dominion’s nearby Chesterfield Power Station may cause increased health risks for visitors. It was released Wednesday, the same day Dominion published its second analysis on the cost and feasibility of recycling and landfilling ash at four sites across the state, including Chesterfield.
And also on Wednesday, Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration announced a deal with Dominion that commits the utility to including about 2.1 million tons of coal ash at its shuttered Chesapeake Energy Center in any future clean up plans. Dominion had argued that a “historic” pond at the site had been closed for years and wasn’t subject to federal coal ash regulations.
“I think there’s real interest in doing something about this,” said state Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, who has constituents who live next to Dominion’s Possum Point power plant and blame it for contamination of drinking water wells.
“Dominion made it very clear in this report that time has run out to continue talking about this. We have to figure this out this session.”
‘COAL ASH IS A THREAT’
The Southern Environmental Law Center and the James River Association commissioned the health risk study, which concludes that some areas of Dutch Gap contaminated by coal ash have “elevated noncancer hazards and cancer risks for recreational visitors.”
The ash, the byproduct of burning coal, can contain a host of potentially toxic pollutants, including arsenic, selenium, lead, chromium, cobalt, boron, thallium and vanadium, among others.
Two unlined basins at the Chesterfield Power Station are estimated to hold about 15 million tons of coal ash. Several rounds of tests by environmental groups have shown they are leaking arsenic and other contaminants into the Dutch Gap Conservation Area and the James River.
The new study, conducted by Colorado-based Terra Technologies Environmental Services, looked specifically at areas that were suspected of coal ash contamination in the park which are “easily accessed by recreational visitors hiking, fishing, or boating.”
The study, which cautioned that “much more work needs to be done to fully delineate and understand the risks site-wide,” found elevated risks for recreational Dutch Gap users from arsenic and hexavalent chromium in particular via several potential exposure pathways, including surface water ingestion, skin contact and “ingestion of plants.”
Cancer risk at Dutch Gap, it determined, may be up to 10 times higher than the upper limit that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency deems acceptable for polluted sites, and 1,000 times higher than the target risk levels.
Dominion spokesman Robert Richardson would not comment for this story. The utility contends that it has tested groundwater at its ash facilities, and that, while monitoring wells onsite show elevated levels of coal ash contamination, there are no impacts to drinking water or public health.
“This assumption must be based on there being no potable use of ground water as a domestic drinking water supply in the immediate vicinity,” the report says. “There are recreational visitors and ecological receptors that are potentially negatively affected by ground water daylighting at seeps or springs.”
Officials with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality were unavailable for comment Wednesday.
Nate Benforado, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said the report is an important step forward in recognizing there are health risks associated with groundwater contamination at Dutch Gap, something he said Dominion has “refused to acknowledge.”
“It’s flowing out of the coal ash ponds into the waterways,” he said. “Common sense dictates if you have contaminated groundwater and you know it’s flowing out into these waterways, that means contaminants are making their way into surface waters and in Chesterfield that means public parks where people kayak, where people boat and fish.”
Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, said in a news release that the report, “reinforces what I’ve said all along, this coal ash pollution must be moved away from our rivers and natural areas and away from public parks and floodplains.”
In an interview, Chase said she would be looking over data from the new report and Dominion’s own test results “with a fine tooth comb.”
“At the end of the day I’m a mom with four kids and my kids actually go to Dutch Gap Conservation Area, they’ve gone there on field trips and there is concern that if you get this water in your mouth, that you are increasing your risk of cancer,” she said. “And the only way that I know as a mother and a legislator how to eliminate this problem — where I don’t have to lose sleep at night wondering if I’ve made the right decision — is to excavate it.”
Surovell said the report “underscores that this issue is about more than just drinking water, it’s also about the ability of Virginians to be able to use their rivers to fish and recreate, and coal ash is a threat to that in the Potomac and the James River.”
Susan Pollard, a spokeswoman for Chesterfield County, said in an email that the county received the report on Friday and is “taking the time to thoroughly review.”
“The Dutch Gap Conservation Area is a unique place in the county that provides an opportunity for residents to get outdoors and be immersed in nature,” she said. “This is one of the precious gems of Chesterfield and we are committed to safeguarding and preserving our natural resources.”
Dominion also on Wednesday released a long-awaited report on the feasibility and costs of recycling ash at all four sites across the state, including Chesterfield.
Environmental groups, concrete industry representatives and some state lawmakers have long prodded the utility to seriously consider the option.
The report — the result of a request for proposals process ordered earlier this year by the Virginia General Assembly — was the second go-round for Dominion in determining the costs of recycling the pond ash for “beneficial reuse,” including concrete, brick or wallboard, which is happening in other states, including North Carolina and South Carolina.
Dominion does currently recycle some of the ash produced at Chesterfield, the largest fossil-fuel power plant in Virginia, which switched to dry ash management last year. The wet ash, which in some cases has sat in the ponds for decades, is trickier to recycle, though it can be done.
In 2017, lawmakers put the brakes on the company’s plans to drain the ponds and cap them on site with a synthetic top and a layer of turf. Amid evidence that all four sites are leaching contaminants, opponents warned that those plans would allow heavy metals to continue to seep into adjacent waterways and groundwater.
They pushed for excavation and hauling away to a lined landfill, recycling, or a combination of the two. The General Assembly ordered the utility to compile a report on timeframes and costs.
The ensuing document, prepared by Dominion consultant AECOM, was criticized as deeply flawed, overstating costs and ignoring viable recycling and encapsulation technologies.
So, earlier this year, the General Assembly ordered Dominion to perform a do-over.
This time, the utility says it can recycle or reuse about 45 percent of the nearly 27.3 million cubic yards of ash (one cubic yard is roughly equivalent to one ton) and landfill the rest within the 15 years spelled out by federal regulations.
Consider that in last year’s study, Dominion estimated closing just Chesterfield by removing the ash and beneficial use would take “21 to 53 years” and cost between $1.5 and $4.25 billion.
The new cost estimates range from $2.8 billion to $3.4 billion if the ash from all four sites is recycled by awarding work to just one company. If multiple companies were selected, the costs range from a little less than $2.4 billion to about $5.6 billion.
“Each option has pros and cons with regard to local impacts such as truck and/or rail and barge traffic for one station,” Dominion said. “Truck traffic could range between 572 trucks a day to 718 trucks a day if material at all four sites were recycled within the parameters of the bids received.”
The company added that “the options to recycle should be considered along with other options to closure the ponds such as enhanced closure in place with groundwater remediation or removal to a landfill.”
Through the second quarter of 2019, Dominion projects to have already spent $458 million on consolidating ash at the sites and treating and discharging coal ash wastewater.
“The 2019 General Assembly will have the options of either setting a new policy or allowing compliance with existing federal and state law and regulation to move forward,” the company said. “Further delay is not a practicable option.”
Surovell noted that, though it’s a high price tag, the cost is reasonable compared to the estimates of capping the ponds in place.
“The bottom line is that the report confirms that coal ash recycling is feasible at all four locations and that the cost is reasonable,” he said. “It’s a lot of money and we’ve got to make sure we make the right decision that’s best for Virginia rate payers and best for the environment.”
The Sierra Club’s Virginia chapter said the most recent report confirms that the utility’s 2017 cost estimates for recycling were “vastly overinflated.”
“Businesses are chomping at the bit for the opportunity to recycle Dominion’s coal ash, and the General Assembly should require this cost-effective solution,” Director Kate Addleson said.
CHESAPEAKE NO LONGER ‘OFF THE REGULATORY RADAR’
Also Wednesday, the governor’s office announced that the DEQ had struck an agreement with Dominion that would ensure that an old ash pond at the Chesapeake Energy Center would be subject to the same environmental standards as its others.
The move “sends a clear signal that this administration takes this issue seriously and wants to see a long-term solution that protects our water and public health,” said Mike Town, executive director of the Virginia League of Conservation Voters.
“With a moratorium expiring in July that prevents Dominion from doing the bare minimum to clean up these sites, now is the time for action,” Town said. “We look forward to working with the legislature and this administration to secure a final solution that gets this toxic waste away from our riverbanks and protects clean water and adjacent communities in the long-term.”
The pond was originally permitted as a solid waste facility, and the agreement clarifies that the site is under the same groundwater monitoring, corrective actions, closure and post-closure care rules that apply to Dominion’s other sites.
Dominion had taken the position that the Chesapeake Energy Center site, referred to as the “historic pond,” wasn’t covered by federal coal ash regulations, known as coal combustion residuals, or CCR, rules, Benforado said.
“That was effectively keeping the coal ash off the regulatory radar, which was, in our view, inappropriate, didn’t work with the law, and was creating real problems in terms of how we were going to close this site if the site wasn’t even going to be subject to regulations,” he said.
‘READY TO ACT’
With the long-awaited Dominion report in hand, the next step is for the joint subcommittee for both the House and Senate commerce and labor committees to recommend a piece of legislation, Surovell said.
Chase said she wants to learn more about the options, particularly how much recycling the coal ash would cost Virginia families.
“And then I want to have a public comment period so the public and my constituents can give me input,” she said. “I plan on acting on legislation during this session. I think we’re ready to act at this point.”
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