A LOOK BACK: Coal ash, pipelines and renewable energy were dominant environmental issues in 2018

By: - December 26, 2018 8:01 am

The sun sets over a hazy mountain ridge in Highland County. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Editor’s note: The Virginia Mercury launched in July to provide a sustained focus on statewide issues that have fallen through the cracks as traditional news outlets shrink. Here’s the first in a holiday-week series looking back on how we’ve spent our time since then.  

Natural gas pipelines

The year began with Virginia’s most controversial infrastructure projects, the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines, seemingly speeding toward full construction after securing permits from the Virginia State Water Control Board in late 2017. However, a series of legal challenges, many playing out in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit here in Richmond, among other developments, have severely knocked them off stride.

The state is suing Mountain Valley Pipeline, lead by EQM Midstream Partners, over several hundred violations related to construction of the project, which is planned to run from West Virginia into Pittsylvania County, and the water board has voted to hold a public hearing to consider revoking a crucial state water quality certification.

Workers have cleared trees along the path of the Mountain Valley Pipeline in Roanoke County. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury – July 26,2018)

A former water board member wrote in a guest op-ed that the lawsuit was also an indictment of how the state Department of Environmental Quality has handled the pipeline permits.

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline, developed by lead partner Dominion Energy, saw the 4th Circuit vacate a key permit allowing the project to cross the Appalachian Trail, a week after an authorization allowing the pipeline project — planned to run from West Virginia, through Virginia and into North Carolina — to kill or harm endangered and threatened species along the route was also stayed.

Yet another permit, the authorization to cross hundreds of waterways issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, was suspended in November.

The project’s remaining outstanding state authorization, an air permit for a Buckingham County compressor station, was delayed again this month by the State Air Pollution Control Board. The board’s vote has drawn national attention over the compressor’s station’s siting in Union Hill, an African-American community founded by freedmen, and Gov. Ralph Northam’s much-criticized decision to replace two members of the board as it weighed the air permit.

Going into 2018, Dominion had planned to have the pipeline finished by the end of 2019. Instead, with costs surging and legal setbacks mounting, the project’s future is looking increasingly cloudy, opponents say.

Coal ash cleanup

The General Assembly has twice put the brakes on Dominion’s plans to largely cap in place millions of tons of coal ash at four sites around the state, where it sits in leaking, largely unlined pits. Among the big environmental issues lawmakers will consider next year is a solution to the mess, which environmental groups and some in the concrete industry say would be best solved by recycling some of the ash and landfilling the rest.

Dominion's power station in Chesterfield in Sept 2017.
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)

A state-mandated report Dominion released in November makes that option appear much more feasible and affordable than a year ago, when a similar report the General Assembly ordered was criticized as an exercise in justifying the company’s previous plans: covering the pits with a liner and a layer of turf and calling it a day.

“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.”

Renewable energy

Virginia could become the first mid-Atlantic state with offshore wind turbines, after the State Corporation Commission grudgingly approved  Dominion’s demonstration project. Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration is eyeing Hampton Roads as a major hub for the industry, well-established in Europe but just getting off the ground in the United States.

CCO Creative Commons via Pixabay.

Ørsted, the Danish energy giant that is partnering with Dominion, Virginia’s largest utility, on the pilot project finalized a $510 million acquisition of Deepwater Wind, which built the first — and for the time being the only— offshore wind farm in the U.S. in Block Island Sound.

A report released in September says Virginia’s port infrastructure, experienced maritime workforce and geographical advantages make it an ideal candidate for becoming a major center for the East Coast offshore wind supply chain. But with other states moving more aggressively to install larger projects, some worry Virginia could get left behind.

In other renewable energy news, the sweeping grid bill Dominion got through the General Assembly last year finds thousands of megawatts of wind and solar in the public interest, which helped it attract support from environmental groups, but a report earlier this year criticized it as lacking performance metrics, cost-benefit analyses and actual grid-modernization spending. The State Corporation Commission also approved the company’s “community solar” program, which allows customers to buy 100 percent renewable energy for a premium.

Other environmental headlines from 2018: 


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Robert Zullo
Robert Zullo

Robert spent 13 years as a reporter and editor at weekly and daily newspapers and was previously editor of the Virginia Mercury. He was a staff writer and managing editor at Worrall Community Newspapers in Union, N.J., before spending five years in south Louisiana covering hurricanes, oil spills and Good Friday crawfish boils as a reporter and city editor for the The Courier and the Daily Comet newspapers in Houma and Thibodaux. He covered Richmond city hall for the Richmond Times-Dispatch from 2012 to 2013 and worked as a general assignment and city hall reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette from 2013 to 2016. He returned to Richmond in 2016 to cover energy, environment and transportation for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Contact him at [email protected]