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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.
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.
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.
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.
PSR, Earthjustice: Coal Ash: The Toxic Threat to our Health and Environment
TIMELINE OF EVENTS (click on arrows for details)
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.
PRKN files notice of appeal of Dominion’s wastewater permit.
“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.
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 river, are 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.
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.
“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
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.
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.
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.