The Fight Against Toxic Coal Ash Contamination Continues

A recent Post article about Maryland’s withdrawal of its challenge to Dominion’s Possum Point waste water permit gives the impression the fight over Dominion’s “cap-in-place” coal ash plan is over. For Brian West, who lives 705 feet from Dominion’s Possum Point coal ash ponds, the fight is just beginning. And our challenge continues.

The same lab at Virginia Tech that analyzed many Flint homes also looked at West’s drinking water. The results? West’s water showed lead levels between four and 10 times the US Environmental Protection Agency’s “action level” for lead. Samples collected from West’s drinking water and some of his neighbors wells have revealed hexavalent chromium, arsenic, cobalt, aluminum, barium, copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, nickel, zinc, potassium, vanadium, boron and strontium—many of which are carcinogenic—all are found in coal ash.

West and many of his neighbors believe millions of tons of toxic coal ash Dominion stored next to his property in unlined pits for the last few decades have contaminated their drinking wells. They have good reason to worry: last year North Carolina health officials tested 360 drinking wells near Duke Energy coal ash ponds and 330 exceeded standards for one or more contaminants. 21 wells had elevated hexavalent chromium levels, while another 90 wells had elevated levels of hexavalent chromium and vanadium, chemicals linked to blood problems and neurological effects.

Dominion, which is being investigated by the EPA for dumping 27.5 million gallons of untreated ash water into the Potomac River, says there’s no evidence of a connection between its coal ash stockpiles and contaminated ground water impacting drinking wells. Yet for 30 years, Dominion has documented extensive ground water contamination from its own ground water monitoring wells at Possum Point.

Contaminated groundwater that is also discharging to the river according to Dominion’s own report: “The primary environmental receptor for groundwater associated with Ash Pond D and Ash Pond E is Quantico Creek… Groundwater flows south from the site toward Quantico Creek where it discharges into the creek.” 

Despite an outcry from state lawmakers, landowners, commercial fisherman and downstream communities along multiple affected Virginia Rivers – the Potomac, James, New, and Elizabeth – Governor McAuliffe has agreed to let Dominion dump treated coal ash waste water into public waterways. The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (VDEQ) – overseen by the Governor – has issued permits to treat hundreds of millions of gallons of contaminated ash water to levels far weaker than permits issued in NC to Duke Energy for the same purpose. This is the same VDEQ whose top regulator accepted a lavish trip to the Master’s Golf Tournament from Dominion.

McAuliffe and Virginia DEQ currently support Dominion’s proposed “cap in place” plan to seal the remaining millions of tons of toxic coal ash where it currently exists without modern synthetic liners. That’s the cheap solution Dominion would like to see, but it allows metals to continue to leak into public water ways and threaten drinking water wells like Brian West’s.

A recent study by Duke University revealed that the cap-in-place approach actually accelerates leakage of certain ash contaminants like arsenic into surrounding groundwater. States like North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia have are now requiring “clean closure” instead of “cap in place” because it requires ash to be moved to modern landfills with an appropriate synthetic liner. These landfills are located away from rivers and drinking supplies. South Carolina utility, Santee Cooper, calls the clean closure plan a “win, win, win” for the local environment, economy, and the utility.

The measures were taken to protect public health and Governor McAuliffe owes it to the people of Virginia to do the same. Citizens like West have been organizing across the state in anticipation of upcoming public hearings on Dominion’s draft solid waste permit. Others will join the “March on the Mansion” on July 23rd to take their message of drinking water safety directly to the Governor.

Coal ash is the largest source of industrial pollution in the country. How states like Virginia and Maryland (currently revising it's own coal ash rules) address this issue will have an impact on other states grappling with hundreds of unlined, leaking coal ash ponds.

The Governor has a choice: he can regulate the disposal of coal ash in a way that recognizes the sound science of Duke’s researchers and protects our children or he can allow our public waterways to continue to be the dumping grounds for a well connected industry. Our rivers, our drinking water supplies deserve better! 

Email me if you want to get involved in our fight against cap-in-place. Join the march on July 23rd in Richmond to say loud and clear – keep toxic coal ash from contaminating our rivers!