The Bulletin

Virginia’s ‘cleanest-burning coal plant’ racks up third consent order for air pollution violations

By: - December 6, 2019 5:02 pm

Dominion’s Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center in Wise County, Virginia, 2019. (Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury)

A Southwestern Virginia power plant praised by Dominion Energy as “one of the cleanest-burning coal plants in the country” has agreed to consent orders for violating state environmental laws more times than any other Dominion facility in Virginia since 2002, despite only being in operation seven years.

This October, the utility signed a consent order with the Department of Environmental Quality for exceeding state particulate matter limits at the Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center in Wise County during stack testing conducted this past April. The company also agreed to pay a $32,550 civil penalty for the violations.

A consent order is a legal agreement between the state and another party to institute corrective action following a violation instead of engaging in litigation. A review of DEQ enforcement actions since 2002 shows that no other Dominion facility during that time has had as many as Virginia City. The utility entered into two for the Chesapeake Energy Center, one in 2014 and one in 2015, but that facility has since been shut down.

The company did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Dominion spokespeople have previously said the company has a policy against speaking with the Mercury.

The Virginia Air Pollution Control Board offered no reaction to Virginia City’s latest violation during its December meeting, although members showed some confusion about what high-priority notices of violation — a label given to the facility’s most recent violation — mean and how much leeway the group has in dealing with them.

“Do we have any flexibility in terms of increasing the penalty or decreasing the penalty?” board member Roy Hoagland asked.

DEQ staff said they would brief the board on its ability to adjust proposed fines at its next meeting.

State law closely governs the assessment of civil penalties.

According to the latest notice of violation, DEQ tests found that the Virginia City facility had exceeded its particulate matter limits by between 42 and 47 percent.

Particulate matter is a combination of solids and liquids emitted from industrial facilities that can be harmful to human health when inhaled and consequently is regulated by both the federal and state governments.

Virginia City previously violated particulate matter emissions limits in spring 2013 and summer 2017. The spring 2013 violations also involved carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide emissions above permitted levels, while the 2017 violations included excessive hydrochloric acid emissions and a failure to conduct certain routine sampling and analysis.

Dominion paid civil penalties of $47,651 in 2013 and $73,351 in 2017.

Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center has been controversial since it was proposed. Although the facility is considered a co-fired plant, 93 percent of the fuel it currently burns to produce energy is coal, with the remaining 7 percent being biomass. In recent regulatory proceedings, Dominion stated that the plant has never operated without burning coal; nevertheless, the utility has sought to include the proportion of the energy the facility produces from biomass in its renewable energy portfolio.

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Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is Editor-in-Chief of the Mercury and previously its environment and energy reporter. She has worked for multiple Virginia and regional publications, including Chesapeake Bay Journal, The Progress-Index and The Caroline Progress. Her reporting has won awards from groups such as the Society of Environmental Journalists and Virginia Press Association, and she is an alumna of the Columbia Energy Journalism Initiative and Metcalf Institute Science Immersion Workshop for Journalists.