Our Day in Court Over Lax Coal Ash Permit at Possum Point

Coal ash ponds at Possum Point, 2015

Coal ash ponds at Possum Point, 2015

On September 27th, Potomac Riverkeeper presented its case against the discharge permit issued to Dominion by Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), allowing Dominion to drain its largest coal ash pit at Possum Point power plant into Quantico Creek and the Potomac River. Under the permit, Dominion is allowed to dump about 200 million gallons of coal ash tainted wastewater into these waterways with lax permit limits that will not protect aquatic life from long term contamination from coal ash metals, including arsenic, nickel, cadmium and selenium.

Greg Buppert of the Southern Environmental Law Center argued the case for us, and did a great job of explaining why DEQ utterly failed to comply with federal and state law when it neglected to require pollution limits based on current treatment technology. The permit also failed to set limits that considered the fact that parts of Quantico Creek are already burdened with high levels of nickel, affecting benthic life in the sediment that is the foundation of the aquatic food chain.

Potomac Riverkeeper filed its appeal in early 2016, after filing formal comments and rallying public opposition to this “dewatering” of Possum Point’s coal ash waste pits. We were supported by a standing room only crowd at the January 14, 2016 State Water Control Board hearing, when the state approved the permit despite overwhelming public opposition. Opposing us in this effort are the Virginia Attorney General’s office representing DEQ, and attorneys for Dominion Power.

We also benefited from an appeal filed by Prince William County, which led to a settlement agreement with Dominion in which the company commits to voluntarily treat the coal ash wastewater at a higher level than DEQ required in the permit, using a second phase of treatment to remove additional metals. As of today, that system has worked well to keep metals in the discharge at extremely low levels. While we applaud this voluntary effort, the fact remains that the permit allows Dominion to discharge metals at much higher levels. As a clean water watchdog group, we can only enforce violations of permit limits, not voluntary efforts, so it is critically important for this permit, and any others issued by DEQ, that they contain enforceable limits that protect our waterways from pollution. Unfortunately we cannot rely on voluntary arrangements to keep pollution out of the Potomac. 

Our lawsuit against this weak permit is only one element of our ongoing campaign to make sure that Dominion is held accountable for decades of coal ash pollution from Possum Point that has burdened the already stressed Potomac River and Quantico Creek with legacy metals contamination. The Creek also supports a small commercial catfish harvest. Protecting the aquatic life in these waters, and the public’s right to fish and recreate here, is at the core of Potomac Riverkeeper Network’s mission.

Next up will be a state permit that determines how the millions of tons of toxic coal ash are disposed of. Dominion would like to leave them in a massive, unlined, leaking pit that would continue to contaminate nearby waters for generations. Potomac Riverkeeper believes this waste should be removed from the site and disposed of in a lined landfill far from any waterways. These are not mere academic concerns; the stretch of the Potomac next to Possum Point is one of three critical spawning areas for the entire Chesapeake Bay striped bass fishery, and Quantico Creek is a popular recreational fishing spot for smallmouth bass and catfish.

If you’re a real litigation junkie, you can read our court briefs: Opening brief. Reply brief.

Listen to Potomac Riverkeeper Dean Naujoks on WERA 96.7 FM talk about our work as Riverkeepers to ensure swimmable, drinkable and fishable waters and about the Possum Point coal ash case.