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)

Last in a series looking ahead to the General Assembly session that starts Wednesday.

Expect much of the environmental debate this session, for the third year in a row, to center on Dominion Energy’s plans to close coal ash impoundments containing millions of tons of the potentially toxic by-product of decades of power generation.

This year, though, there’s a big difference. Gov. Ralph Northam has thrown his support behind an as-yet-unfiled measure that would force the utility to excavate the ash from the unlined pits in which it currently sits and either recycle it or store it in modern, lined landfills.

Under federal regulations put out in 2015 in part to reduce the risk of catastrophic coal ash spills, utilities must close inactive ponds, but they have an array of options available to them for how to comply. Dominion has steadfastly insisted that draining the ponds, treating and discharging the water, and covering them with a synthetic liner and turf is safe and cost effective.

But environmental groups, armed with Dominion’s own data and separate testing that show the existing sites are already leaking out toxic heavy metals and other contaminants into adjacent waterways, say that solution will only allow them to keep polluting for decades to come and require more expensive fixes down the road.

They have long pushed for the state to require Dominion to do what utilities elsewhere are doing with coal ash in many cases: recycle it, haul it away from waterways to lined landfills or a combination of the two. And while they have convinced Northam to get on board, the chairmen of the House and Senate commerce and labor committees, where the legislation could wind up, are the utility’s biggest allies in the General Assembly.

Sen. Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach, who heads the Senate committee, has already expressed some worries about the cost of recycling and excavation. Dominion’s critics, meanwhile, have contended the utility has inflated the price of recycling and removal and downplayed the feasibility of the option.

Also remaining unsettled in Northam’s proposal, which will be carried by Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, and Del.Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Prince William, is how to pay for the cleanup costs, which could run into the billions.

Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, who together with Surovell, has led the charge to stall the company’s closure plans in favor of a more environmentally sound solution, has filed separate legislation requiring the ash to be dug up or recycled, with an explicit provision allowing the company to recoup the costs in a rider, or a rate-adjustment clause.

Among other proposals from Northam and allied lawmakers’ environmental package:

  • The Coastal Protection Act by Sen. Lynwood Lewis, D-Accomack, would allow Virginia to use an estimated $50 million in revenue generated by the sale of carbon pollution credits for coastal resilience projects and dedicate money to low-income energy efficiency and “economic transition” for coal communities. That’s by virtue of fully joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a network of carbon trading states that cap power plant emissions. Virginia has sought to “link” to RGGI via executive action because the GOP-controlled legislature won’t go along with the idea.
  • Backed by Del. Margaret Ransone of Westmoreland and Sen. Emmett Hanger of Augusta, both Republicans, a change to the Stormwater Local Assistance Fund “will make it easier for rural communities to access a portion of the matching funds made available to reduce polluted runoff from impervious surfaces like roads and parking lots.”

With many bills yet to be filed, here’s a sampling of other introduced energy and environmental legislation:

The little fish that commands big attention 

Menhaden, the small, oily fish that gets rendered into big dollars for an influential Northern Neck commercial fish operation, will again be on the menu for lawmakers this year. Menhaden is the only species directly regulated by the General Assembly instead of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission and that’s how Omega Protein likes it, with a company spokesman saying Omega prefers “140 sets of eyes” on the fishery.

A school of menhaden, which are harvested in the Chesapeake Bay. (Creative Commons via Pixabay)

Del. Barry Knight, R-Virginia Beach, is back again in his long-running quest to bring menhaden under VMRC regulation and implement a controversial quota imposed in the Chesapeake Bay by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission that Omega opposed but Gov. Ralph Northam backed. Sport fishermen and conservationists say Omega is overfishing in the bay, stressing larger species like striped bass. Omega says there’s no evidence menhaden are overfished. In the Senate, Knight has an ally in Sen. John Cosgrove, R-Chesapeake, who introduced an identical bill.

Both require legislative review for any moratorium on the fishery.

Taking aim at the governor’s air board move

Gov. Ralph Northam infuriated opponents of Dominion’s contentious natural gas Atlantic Coast Pipeline by yanking two members off the State Air Pollution Control Board as it weighed a crucial permit for a compressor station that is part of the project.  Del. Mark Keam, D-Fairfax, who criticized the move, is proposing changes to the composition of the state’s three environmental regulatory boards and the appointment process.

Opponents of a proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline compressor station in Buckingham County protested outside the General Assembly Building ahead of a State Air Pollution Control Board meeting. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury – Dec. 19, 2018)

“I couldn’t imagine that he would use his authority in such a starkly political way to influence decisions to be made by an independent board,” Keam said in a statement.

Keam’s bill would give the air board, the State Water Control Board and the Waste Management Board all seven members, with “two members appointed by the governor; two members appointed by the Senate Committee on Rules from a list recommended by the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources; and three members appointed by the Speaker of the House from a list recommended by the House Committee on Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources.”

No more fossil fuel plants?

Consider this one a longshot, but a smart move with experts warning that we are running out of time to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.

Del. David Reid, D-Loudoun, has filed a bill that would prevent the State Corporation Commission, which regulates Virginia utilities, from issuing a certificate of public convenience and necessity “required for the construction or operation by an electric utility of a new fossil fuel facility or for the expansion or continued operation of an existing fossil fuel facility before first approving the construction and placing in service of renewable energy generation facilities having in the aggregate a rated capacity of 5,500 megawatts.”

Dominion’s Chesterfield Power Station . (NBC 12)

Last year, Dominion successfully muscled through its mammoth “grid modernization” law through the General Assembly in a bid to hang onto hundreds of millions in excess earnings by promising to invest those gains in the electric grid and renewable energy. The law declared that 5,000 megawatts of wind and solar energy is “in the public interest.”

Reid’s bill also prohibits the SCC, on or after July 1, “from authorizing or permitting an electric utility or re-permitting an existing idle fossil fuel facility to increase purchases of electric power under any agreement with another person, if the electric power is or will be generated at a fossil fuel facility, before first approving the construction and placing in service of such renewable energy generation facilities.”

A $1 billion solar grant program, paid by the utilities?

Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, a leading progressive in the House, is pushing for a $1 billion grant fund under the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy’s Solar Energy Center to allow religious institutions, public schools, higher education institutions and localities to finance the installation and operation of solar systems.

Where will that grant money come from? “Sources of moneys in the fund include $1 billion in voluntary contributions over three years that are required to be made by each Phase I Utility and each Phase II Utility,” a summary of the legislation says. (Phase I and Phase II means Appalachian Power and Dominion, respectively, who I’m sure will be glad to fork over that “voluntary” but “required” money)

“The utilities are barred from recovering the contributed funds from ratepayers by raising electricity rates, adding fees, or other means,” a summary of the bill says.

A plastic bag tax:

Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax City, wants a 5-cent per-bag tax on plastic bags for customers of grocery stores, convenience stores, or drug stores, retailers in the Chesapeake Bay watershed and directs revenues to the Virginia Water Quality Improvement Fund, to be set aside to pay for Chesapeake Bay cleanup.

The Rubin Group:

Over the past several years, renewable energy, environmental and utility and electric cooperative representatives have met in a working group to hammer out compromise legislation on easing the grip the utilities have on expanding net-metering (which compensates customers for power generated onsite, such as rooftop solar) increasing battery storage and other loosening other restrictions around solar power. The group, which meets in private, is led by Mark Rubin, executive director of Virginia Center for Consensus Building and an attorney in former Gov. Tim Kaine’s administration.

What might emerge from that process, which has produced bills that are generally the only ones to make it through the legislative committees where the utilities hold sway, remains to be seen.