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)

In an ideal world, we might expect agencies charged with protecting people and the environment to always do the right thing within the limits of the law regardless of who sits in the governor’s mansion. But because we live in the real world, of course, political leadership matters a great deal.

Consider the history of the debate around how to clean up millions of tons of coal ash at four Dominion Energy sites across the state.

Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, has thrown his support behind a bill that would require the utility, which has long been used to having its way with state government, to dig up or recycle nearly 30 million tons of coal ash from the unlined pits where it currently sits, leaking arsenic, lead, radium, chromium and other contaminants into Virginia waterways.

“It is so important that we move forward and clean up these ponds because of the damage that they are doing to our drinking water, which is precious,” Northam said.

That statement might have come as a surprise if you’ve been listening to the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, which has insisted for years that, even if the ash ponds are leaking contaminants off site, which they have been loathe to acknowledge, they’re not a threat to anyone.

In 2017, DEQ Director David Paylor told a House committee that the DEQ’s process for evaluating risks at coal ash sites was sound and added that there is no evidence that “harmful concentrations” of heavy metals are leaving the ash sites. The Virginia Department of Health and outside groups did testing of drinking water wells for neighbors of Dominion’s Possum Point Power Station who blamed the ash pits for the concentrations of metals found in their wells.

As the residents grappled with widely varying results and before Dominion ultimately agreed to pay for public water hook ups for homeowners, this is what a DEQ spokesman told me:

“To date, there is no indication of concern for private well contamination,” he said. The same spokesman, Bill Hayden, conveyed the agency’s similar shoulder-shrugging approach to a Chesapeake golf course sculpted out of coal ash supplied by Dominion, which also agreed to public water connections for locals there who alleged the ash had contaminated their wells.

As of last week, there was still some daylight between the DEQ and the governor’s remarks though.

“We believe the best way to protect our groundwater and surface water from coal ash is to remove it from the site. New legislation focused on the health of Virginia’s citizens is always good news,” said Ann Regn, a spokeswoman for the agency.

“We don’t believe drinking water sources have been harmed by any of the coal ash sites in Virginia, and DEQ will continue to work to prevent contamination of Virginia’s waters.”

Still, now that the governor has backed excavation and recycling the ash, the DEQ seems to be finally shifting to the stance environmental groups have been urging it to take for years. The agency had long insisted that Dominion’s previous plans, which largely involved leaving the ash where it is  — after pumping out, treating and discharging the water in the ponds — then covering them with a synthetic top and a layer of turf, would be fine.

“We have not changed position,” Regn said. “Saying one method is best is not equal to saying another is unsafe or is not protective.”

Environmental groups, not the DEQ, were the ones pointing out that much of the ash is already sitting in groundwater and that covering it with a top won’t keep the groundwater from moving through the ash to surface waters or prevent the contaminants from continuing to leach out.

In fact, since the new federal rules on coal ash came out in 2015, DEQ has steadfastly refused to push the utilities on the issue, even amid mounting evidence that the ponds were leaking contaminants into state waters, including a federal court case involving the shuttered Chesapeake power plant and scientists from Duke University who conclusively linked leaks at Bremo and Chesterfield to coal ash. (Incidentally, the same technique was used to exonerate coal ash as a culprit in a high-profile fight over well water in North Carolina).

“We haven’t seen any evidence of harm to the environment,” Regn told me in 2016 after the Duke results came out. “We’re pretty confident that how we’ve been handling it all these years has been appropriate.”

It was also environmental groups and local governments, not the DEQ, that cut deals with Dominion for enhanced treatment of the coal ash wastewater prior to discharge.

I could go on, but I think you get the point.

Leadership matters, and Northam should be commended for staking out a firm position on one of the biggest environmental issues in the state, even if he’s merely placing his stamp of approval on the consensus solution that has emerged among enough lawmakers, environmental groups and business interests that see a need for recycled ash for cement and other products.

Now, about those pipelines.