Safe Disposal of Coal Ash at Possum Point Campaign

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PROJECT UPDATE: Virginia lawmakers have approved legislation to require the state’s largest electric utility to excavate and clean up unlined coal ash pits.  The General Assembly approved legislation that requires Dominion Energy to recycle or safely landfill millions of cubic yards of coal ash currently located at sites around the state.  Gov. Ralph Northam is expected to sign the legislation.

Possum Point Power Plant

Dominion, one of Virginia’s largest energy companies, owns and operates the Possum Point Power Plant, located just south of Alexandria on a peninsula between Quantico Creek and the Potomac River. The plant burned coal from 1955 to 2003. Coal ash, the waste produced from burning coal, is disposed of at the site in five “ponds” that hold over a billion gallons of toxic coal ash and contaminated water. Although the plant switched to natural gas in 2003, the ponds are still being used to store millions of tons of this toxic slurry – all of which is located along the banks of Quantico Creek.

Coal ash contains a range of metals that are toxic at high levels, including lead, arsenic, chromium, selenium and vanadium, and is typically stored in unlined pits at coal plants, often built where wetlands once were, or constructed on hillsides with large earthen and rock berms to contain the ash and stormwater that combines to create coal ash “ponds.” Subsequently, this slurry can leach out of the ponds and pollute nearby groundwater and waterways. This can be expedited from severe rainstorm events. In 2014, Potomac Riverkeeper Network discovered that all five ponds at Possum Point were seeping directly into the Creek or leaching coal ash waste into local groundwater around the facility, resulting in contamination of the groundwater and illegal surface water discharges from the site.

coal ash ponds
Pond E before and after Dominion discharged 27.5M gallons of untreated coal ash wastewater in May 2015.

During a routine flyover in June 2015, Potomac Riverkeeper Network discovered Pond E was empty, prompting Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) to notify DEQ Director David Paylor that pond E may have been drained into Quantico Creek. On June 19, 2015 Director Paylor responded by email; “we know that water was moved between ponds but our best information is that no water was discharged to state waters.” On June 22, 2015, Potomac Riverkeeper filed a complaint to EPA Criminal Investigation Division describing potential discharging or dewatering waste water from Dominion’s coal ash pond E at Possum Point into an unnamed tributary (known as the Beaver Pond) of Quantico Creek.

In September 2015, Potomac Riverkeeper Network, represented by SELC, filed a 60-day Notice of Intent (NOI) to sue Dominion for illegal discharges of toxic coal ash into Quantico Creek and ground water (read factsheet). After filing Notice of Intent, PRKN continued to monitor the facility for illegal discharges into Quantico Creek and to take water and sediment samples at the site perimeter to test for unsafe levels of heavy metals. PRKN joined state lawmakers in calling for testing of drinking water wells for nearby residents, to find out whether their drinking water has been affected by the coal ash leaks into groundwater.

What is a coal ash pond?

In attempt to contain the material, the coal ash is frequently mixed with water to form a toxic slurry that is stored in man-made deposits or ‘ponds’. These coal ash ponds often lie near rivers and streams, which lead to incidental leaching or seeping into those waterways due to natural processes, extreme weather events and poor maintenance such as no lining to cover the pond.

In just the last decade there have been two major coal ash spills that have lasting disastrous consequences to the Emory River in Kingston, TN and the Dan River in Eden, NC.

Health Impacts

Heavy metals such as arsenic, lead, mercury, selenium and chromium present grave risks to human health. From EPA’s peer-reviewed “Human and Ecological Health Risk Assessment for Coal Combustion Wastes,” people who live near coal ash disposal sites have a 1 in 50 chance of getting cancer from drinking water from arsenic, which is 2,000 times greater than EPA’s goal.

Additional Resources

PSR, Earthjustice: Coal Ash: The Toxic Threat to our Health and Environment

EPA: Human and Ecological Risks Assessment of Coal Combustion Wastes

TIMELINE OF EVENTS (click on arrows for details)

November 2015: PRKN files comments on draft wastewater permit
Potomac Riverkeeper Network began gearing up to fight Dominion’s latest effort to avoid cleaning up its coal ash mess at the Possum Point power plant near Quantico, Virginia. A proposed discharge permit revision would enable Dominion to dump tens of millions of gallons of coal ash waste pond water contaminated with toxic metals directly into Quantico Creek and the Potomac River. Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ)’s draft permit fails to include any limits on metals from one discharge point, and completely ignores the impact this massive discharge may have on Quantico Creek, a critical spawning area for striped bass and catfish. See draft permit HERE. Read PRKN’s formal comments on the draft permit HERE. Read expert reports HERE.

December 2015: Over 100 people protest at DEQ’s office & poll shows majority of Prince William County residents oppose Dominion’s plan
On December 8, nearly a hundred people crowded into DEQ’s office in Woodbridge, Virginia to voice their concerns and opposition to Dominion’s plan, ok’d by Virginia regulators, to dump over 100 million gallons of contaminated coal ash wastewater into Quantico Creek and the Potomac River. Potomac Riverkeeper’s opposition to the draft permit allowing the discharge was supported by state Senator-elect Scott Surovell, Prince William County officials, other environmental groups and local residents, all of whom assailed DEQ officials for the lack of public notice, lack of detail in the permit, and failure to set proper limits on toxic metals discharges.

A new poll of Prince William County residents conducted on behalf of PRKN reveals significant public concern and opposition to Dominion Virginia’s plan to clean up five coal ash ponds at its Possum Point. Prince William County residents were polled about controversial elements in Dominion’s plan. The results show that a large majority of residents don’t know about the plan even though the public comment period is nearing its end on December 14.

January 2016: After VA State Water Quality Board approved wastewater permit, Dominion reveals it released 27.5 million gallons of untreated coal ash wastewater into tributary of Quantico Creek. PRKN files notice of appeal
Earlier in the year, Dominion Virginia Power revealed the company dumped 33.7 million gallons of untreated coal ash waste water from its Possum Point Power Station in May 2015 into Quantico Creek. Dominion Power then met privately with Virginia DEQ on February 3rd and revised its number to 27.5 million gallons, which is still more contaminated coal ash water than was spilled into the Dan River by Duke Energy in 2014. Dominion didn’t publicly acknowledge it dumped untreated coal ash water until after the company received approval of its permit modification from Virginia DEQ and the State Water Board on January 14th 2016. PRKN filed a follow up complaint to EPA CID that Dominion’s engineering report revealed the company did dump waste water from coal ash pond E to Quantico Creek in May of 2015.

PRKN files notice of appeal of Dominion’s wastewater permit.

February 2016: PRKN files appeal of wastewater permit
Potomac Riverkeeper Network filed a petition to appeal the wastewater permit with our attorneys from Southern Environmental Law Center. In addition, we submitted requests to the EPA for a criminal investigation on the relationship between Dominion Virginia Power and the Department of Environmental Quality. Prince William County and the State of Maryland both filed notices to appeal the permit. The Town of Dumfries voted to request an EPA criminal investigation.

March 2016: WAMU 88.5 News breaks story on relationship between DEQ & Dominion
WAMU88.5FM News breaks a story on the relationship between DEQ and Dominion:

“Activists are concerned about the coziness they say exists between Dominion and Virginia’s environmental regulators. Public documents obtained by WAMU 88.5 show that in 2013, Dominion paid for David Paylor, the head of Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality to attend the Masters golf tournament in Georgia, one of the most sought-after sports tickets in the country. The value of the trip was estimated to be $2,300, according to Paylor’s 2013 financial disclosure statement. Dominion also picked up the tab for a $1,200 outing to O’Toole’s, an Irish pub in Augusta that Paylor patronized along with nine others.”

On May 22, WAMU runs the story on the radio and Potomac Riverkeeper Dean Naujoks is interviewed on The Kojo Nnamdi Show.

May 2016: Dominion releases coal ash wastewater & testing shows contaminated ground water and drink water wells

Dominion held a pre-emptive open house for reporters before releasing contaminated coal ash waste water on Monday, May 9th into Quantico Creek. This is the beginning of over 200 million gallons to be released over the next year.

Potomac Riverkeeper Network and the State of Maryland, which has jurisdiction over the riverare still fighting Dominion’s permit to dewater the ponds. Dominion is not using “the best available technologies” to treat the water, as is required by federal law. North Carolina, for example, requires more stringent limits on arsenic in treated coal-ash water. We also object that treated water will be tested by contractors paid by Dominion.

Due to public pressure brought by PRKN, community members, some lawmakers and many others, Dominion agreed to treat the waste water at levels above what is required in the permit. However, Dominion is not being required to use “the best available technologies” to treat the water, as is required by federal law.

In addition to the release of waste water, we continue to be concerned about contaminated ground water and drinking water wells in the community around Possum Point. State Senator Scott Surovell has made multiple attempts to get Virginia DEQ and Dominion to retap the two Dominion monitoring wells closest to residential properties (located only about 100 feet from Brian West home at 18411) but both Dominion and DEQ (DEQ Director David Paylor and Secretary Molly Ward) all refused his request. Dominion’s ground water monitoring wells allegedly collapsed and have provided no data ground water data for approximately 20 years, despite being required under their current permit to provide critical ground water monitoring data to see if flow of contaminated ground water is moving toward residential properties and drinking water supplies.

Prince William County is concerned about the inconsistent test results on lead and is paying to have two residents’ wells retested to determine whether the well water is being contaminated by Dominion.

Both Dominion and DEQ want to issue a solid waste permit without having critical ground water monitoring data closest to people’s homes. They want to approve the permit despite having data (from both Virginia Tech and an Independent Lab) that shows two drinking wells located less than 1500 feet from Dominion’s coal ash ponds are contaminated with a variety of metals found in coal ash.

The state has previously confirmed Dominion coal ash Pond E has no liner and the Pond D only has a partial liner with documented ground water contamination leaking from Pond E and Pond D dating back over 30 years. Yet, the state does not seem to be concerned about how the flow of contaminated ground water is moving toward and negatively impacting people’s drinking water and their property values. Residents are living on bottled water, paying for their own water lines to be hooked up and their properties significantly devalued as a result of these coal ash ponds.

Researchers at Duke University who say they have developed a method to link water contamination to coal ash have taken samples near Dominion Virginia Power facilities in Fluvanna and Chesterfield counties. Duke University has successfully tested “forensic tracers,” namely distinctive isotopes of boron and strontium, two elements found in coal ash effluent, that would distinguish between contamination coming from coal ash and other sources. The drinking wells tested on Possum Point Road had both boron and strontium in the sample results.

June 2016: State of Maryland drops its appeal of wastewater permit
The State of Maryland dropped its appeal of Dominion’s grossly inadequate Possum Point discharge permit. Virginia’s DEQ issued a statement that the “discharge permit issued by Virginia was fully protective of our valuable estuaries and is fully consistent with the laws and regulations of both states and the federal government.” This extremely misleading statement ignores the fact that “Best Available Technology” as required by the Clean Water Act is not being used to treat contaminated ash water. Duke Energy is required to do this in North Carolina and we feel the Potomac River deserves the same level of protection as North Carolina rivers. Prince George’s County’s agreement with Dominion on the discharge permit ignores on-going contamination leaking and seeping from ash ponds as well as over 30 years of documented ground water contamination discharging into the river. Contaminants have also been discovered in drinking wells near Possum Point, posing a serious public health risk. Our coal ash campaign forced Dominion to install a $35 million treatment technology and exposed DEQ’s flawed permitting process that would have allowed discharging of toxic pollutants harmful to aquatic life and human health. The Potomac River deserves better! We continue our appeal to correct Virginia DEQ’s failure to make Dominion comply with the Clean Water Act. This fight is far from over! There will be public hearings for Dominion’s solid waste permit in the very near future. We will need your voices once again!

September 2016: State court hears our appeal of wastewater permit

On September 27, 2016, we were in Virginia state court for our challenge of the Possum Point wastewater permit, explaining why the state’s permit allowing Dominion to dump about 200 million gallons of polluted coal ash wastewater into the Potomac River without proper treatment violates federal law and threatens valuable fish habitat. Quantico Creek, a popular spot for recreational and commercial fishing, has suffered the brunt of Dominion’s coal ash pollution for decades. Our attorney from Southern Environmental Law Center did an outstanding job, distilling our case down to this simple fact: Virginia regulators are required by law to set the strictest possible pollution limits to protect our shared waterways. And they failed, miserably. Stay tuned for the judge’s decision in the next few months.

Read Potomac Riverkeeper Dean Naujoks’ Washington Post OpEd, July 15, 2016: “McAuliffe has a choice: He can follow the lead of our Southern neighbors and regulate the disposal of coal ash in a way that recognizes sound science and protects our rivers and drinking-water supplies or he can compromise drinking water for future generations in favor of a well-connected industry such as Dominion.”

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.

October 2016: Potomac Riverkeeper Dean Naujoks is arrested at civil disobedience protest at Governor’s mansion

Potomac Riverkeeper Dean Naujoks participated in a civil disobedience protest at Governor McAuliffe’s mansion on October 5. Watch a video about why Dean got arrested. Read press statement.

“I’m getting arrested today because the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, under Governor McAuliffe, has failed to protect public health when it comes to the proper disposal of millions of tons of toxic coal ash in the state. There are drinking wells, next to coal ash sites in Virginia right now, that are confirmed to be contaminated and yet the state still won’t tell citizens whether the wells are safe to drink or not. In the meantime, the Governor has the full power, on his own, to order DEQ to follow the much stronger and safer coal ash standards of North and South Carolina and Georgia. He should do that today.” – Potomac Riverkeeper Dean Naujoks

December 2016: Dominion announces it will hook up Possum Point homes to public water & it pauses releases of treated wastewater
Dominion indicates it will run water lines to homes around Possum Point. We this is an acknowledgment by Dominion that the coal ash ponds at Possum Point have been contaminating groundwater, which then contaminates drinking water wells. Why would Dominion now undertake this expense? We believe that Possum Point’s coal ash ponds caused this contamination, and only effective solution for permanently solving the problem is the excavation and removal of all of the site’s ash to dry, lined storage.

PRKN raised the alarm since Dominion paused the treatment of the coal ash waste water, and since Dominion has steadily consolidated the bulk of the ash and wastewater from its five ponds into one, known as “pond D,” Naujoks worries that any pause in releasing water from that pond could seriously strain its structural integrity. He says aerial photographs of the pond from last month show that it’s “never been more full to capacity in its entire lifespan than it is right now,” and he’s hoping to arrange another flyover this week to further study the pond condition.

January 2017: DEQ released draft solid waste permit for disposal of 4 million tons of toxic coal ash

Virginia Department of the Environment issued the solid waste permit for Dominion that would allow them to cap-in-place the toxic coal ash. The public comment period is open until March 10 and there is a public hearing on February 16th. Here is our fact sheet on why Dominion must safely dispose of its toxic coal ash at Possum Point.

A recent poll revealed strong support for local involvement, with 80% of respondents saying the Prince William Board of Supervisors should use its authority to mandate Dominion consider alternative solutions other than capping the coal ash and leaving it in place before they get approval for a permit to store the coal ash. The Board of Supervisors meet on February 14th at 2pm and 7:30pm and proponents of safe disposal of coal ash are expected to attend. Read our press statement on the poll results.

February 2017: 80% of Prince William County residents oppose Dominion’s plan to cap-in-place, hundreds demand action from County Board of Supervisors & bill mandating a full analysis of all disposal alternatives awaits the governor’s signature
A recent poll conducted by the Cromer Group revealed overwhelming support for alternatives to Dominion Power’s plan to permanently dispose of 4 million tons of harmful coal ash at its Possum Point power plant near Quantico, Virginia. In the poll of Prince William registered voters, 80% said they “would be more likely to support a plan to move this coal ash to a safe, fully lined modern landfill somewhere else away from homes and drinking water supplies…” The poll revealed strong support for local government oversight, with 80% of respondents saying the Prince William Board of Supervisors should require Dominion to come up with alternative solutions other than capping the coal ash and leaving it in place before they get approval for a permit to store the coal ash.

Hundreds of residents attended Prince William County Board of Supervisors meetings on February 14 and March 8 protesting Dominion’s plan to bury 4 million tons of toxic coal ash waste at Possum Point, and demanding action by the supervisors. The supervisors voted to: request the utility to contact Governor McAuliffe to assert their support for his reinserting the permit moratorium to state Senate Bill 1398. They also want Dominion to agree to an “objective” third-party analysis of alternatives to the cap-in-place plan at Possum Point and they want Dominion to ask DEQ to delay the permit’s approval. Hundreds of residents also voiced opposition to the solid waste permit at Virginia DEQ’s public hearing on February 16.

A key provision was stripped out of Senate Bill 1398 before it was approved by the Republican-controlled House of Delegates last month. The provision would have placed a temporary moratorium on DEQ solid-waste permits for any of Dominion’s four power plants where coal ash ponds are in the process of being closed: Possum Point, Chesterfield, Chesapeake and Bremo. All are located on major Virginia rivers.

The bill is sponsored by Sen. Scott Surovell, a Democrat whose 36th District includes Possum Point, and Republican state Sen. Amanda Chase, whose 11th District includes the Chesterfield power plant. The measure requires Dominion to identify existing pollution at the power plants and assess possible “clean-closure” options: either recycling the ash or hauling it away from river fronts to synthetically-lined landfills that meet current federal requirements for coal-ash disposal.

But as currently amended, the bill would not delay the DEQ permitting process, meaning it won’t affect the timeline at Possum Point unless McAuliffe agrees to reinstate the temporary moratorium on state permits.

March 2017: Prince William County requested a delay in the solid waste permit & a study of alternatives. Nearly 500 comments sent to DEQ opposing Dominion’s plan to bury toxic coal ash
This last month was a critical time for intensifying pressure to stop Dominion’s plan to bury 4 million tons of toxic coal ash at Possum Point. We had several important deadlines within a short time — potentially the last two public meetings with the Prince William Board of Supervisors and the March 10th deadline to submit public comments to VDEQ on the solid waste permit. Hundreds of people attended public meetings, several news articles were published, almost 500 emails sent, and thousands of people reached through our emails and community organizing efforts. The Prince William County Board of Supervisors requested a delay in the solid waste permit and a study of alternatives. A bill passed the House that would stop VDEQ from approving Dominion’s related permits until that assessment had occurred was watered down in the Senate and is now of the Governor’s desk. So our work continues to pressure the state to require Dominion to seek alternatives to “capping-in-place” its legacy of toxic coal ash that threatens nearby drink water wells and the Potomac River.

April 2017: Major Victory! Bill requiring a moratorium on coal ash solid waster permits is signed by the governor!
Governor McAuliffe announced he supports the safeguards to public health and the environment we’ve been fighting for. He amended the bill to put the brakes on issuing coal ash solid waste permits to Dominion for at least a year so the threats posed at their facilities can be assessed and the full range of disposal solutions be explored. In his words, “there has been tremendous public concern and outreach on this topic.” He’s talking about you. You lined up at pubic meetings to say no to Dominion’s plan to cover up the problem. You demanded alternatives, like recycling or moving the coal ash to a location where it won’t poison families or water resources. You wrote hundreds of letters to elected officials. You called them until they heard your message loud and clear: Virginia is not Dominion’s coal ash dumping ground. The Governor sent the coal ash bill back to the Virginia General Assembly for a vote and on April 5 they voted to uphold his amendment. We still have a ways to go to ensure full clean up of toxic ash ponds but this bill pried open the door to get us one step closer to full clean up as other states have done.