The Bulletin

‘A win for Virginia:’ Both chambers pass coal ash cleanup legislation

By: - February 18, 2019 8:49 am

Dominion Energy’s Chesterfield Power Station is one of four sites across the state that is subject to new coal ash pond closure restrictions under compromise legislation that passed the General Assembly and was signed by the governor. (Photo by Ryan M. Kelly)

After years of effort from advocates and lawmakers alike, along with multiple studies on how to do it and the cost, both the House and Senate passed legislation last week outlining how and when Dominion Energy will clean up about 30 million tons of coal ash at four sites around the state.

“This is a huge win for Virginia,” said Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield. She and Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, have been working on the effort to clean up the coal ash ponds for more than three years.

On Friday, the House passed legislation sponsored by Sen. Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach, that mirrors a bill that the Senate passed on Thursday sponsored by Del. Riley Ingram, R-Hopewell.

The legislation, which is headed to the governor’s desk after he already announced his support for the bipartisan agreement, requires Dominion to close its multiple coal ash ponds either by removing the ash for recycling or depositing it in a lined landfill.

Both Chase and Surovell signed on as co-patrons to Wagner’s bill.

Surovell said he’s happy the legislature was able to reach a bipartisan agreement, though it doesn’t go as far as he wanted. The bills require Dominion to recycle 2.8 million cubic yards of ash, which is about a quarter of the overall number, and Surovell says up to 75 percent could have been recycled.

“I think there are pretty smart people in Virginia that could figure out ways to develop products out of this,” he said.

But he added that, as far as he knows, the legislation is the first time Virginia has adopted a policy that’s more protective of the environment than the minimum standards required by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“It’s good to see Virginia stepping up to protect the environment,” he said.

The agreement between the two chambers — and the powerful utility itself — puts an end to the question of how the utility should close its ash ponds. Dominion had wanted to cap them in place with a synthetic top and a layer of turf, which environmental groups warned would allow the ash continue to leak heavy metals and other contaminants into groundwater for years to come.

“Senator Surovell and I have worked in a bipartisan fashion for the past three and a half years to move this legislation forward, back when it wasn’t popular,” Chase said. “We have been able to successfully put aside the partisan politics and do what’s best for our constituents and what’s best for all Virginians.

“There were a lot of people that initially raised an eyebrow that a Republican and a Democrat are working together on this very important issue, but we got it done.”

Both versions of the legislation allow Dominion to recover all the costs associated with the closure through an additional charge on customers’ bills called a rate adjustment clause, or rider, subject to approval by the State Corporation Commission.

“This means there is an end in sight to Dominion’s coal ash pollution in Virginia,” said Nate Benforado, an attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center.

“Today’s new law is the culmination of years of diligent work by legislators, conservationists, and citizens who made it their mission to ensure that Virginia address coal ash pollution head on and get done what the federal government has been unable to accomplish,” he said. “Other states who are struggling to find solutions to deal with coal ash should take a hard look at this sensible piece of legislation.”

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Katie O'Connor
Katie O'Connor

Katie, a Manassas native, has covered health care, commercial real estate, law, agriculture and tourism for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Richmond BizSense and the Northern Virginia Daily. Last year, she was named an Association of Health Care Journalists Regional Health Journalism Fellow, a program to aid journalists in making national health stories local and using data in their reporting. She is a graduate of the College of William and Mary, where she was executive editor of The Flat Hat, the college paper, and editor-in-chief of The Gallery, the college’s literary magazine.