The Story Behind our Success at Cleaning Up Possum Point Coal Ash

Photo by Tusik Only

Possum Point is a sleepy rural mid income community of families and retired military folks who live a simple life along Quantico Creek and the Potomac River. Dan and Patty Marrow, chose to raise their three children on Possum Point Road because they believed it was a safe, wholesome community. Little did they know that carcinogens had been leaching from toxic coal ash ponds owned by the nearby Dominion Power Plant through ground water, slowly poisoning their drinking wells.  And while the Virginia Department of Quality (DEQ) knew all eleven of Dominion’s ash ponds had been contaminating ground water for over 30 years, communities across Virginia were unaware of the dangers of living next to coal ash ponds.

That is until newly hired Potomac Riverkeeper, Dean Naujoks, came on the scene in 2015, fresh from battling Duke Energy and its leaking ash ponds in North Carolina. Those lessons learned proved invaluable for taking on another profligate polluter and a regulatory system that allows polluters to go unchallenged by the government agencies tasked with upholding regulations that protect human health and our drinking water supply.

We assume when we turn on our tap, clean water will come out.  The Clean Water Act legitimizes our right to clean water, but right here in the Washington, DC region, our Riverkeepers uncover illegal pollution regularly.  Ensuring enforcement of Clean Water laws, Riverkeepers become the last line of defense, protecting our waterways on the public’s behalf.  A Riverkeepers’ willingness to go to the mat, and sue polluters like Dominion Power, is what sets us apart from other nonprofit environmental groups.

In order to take on large entrenched companies like Dominion Power, a scrappy nonprofit like Potomac Riverkeeper Network relies on individual donations and foundation support like that received from the Spring Creek Environmental Fund. This story is just one of dozens of toxic threats we investigate annually.  Taking the time to deeply investigate and understand the nature of threats to water quality, while locating the actual individual sources of pollution is critical to our approach, credibility, and success.

What Dean uncovered at Possum Point was alarming – water containing heavy metals called seeps had been leaking from unlined ash ponds for decades into the creek.  Independent lab test results of private drinking wells around Possum Point, commissioned and paid for by PRKN, proved “untreated water from the wells at the properties addressed [on] Possum Point Road should not be used for potable purposes.” The wells were contaminated by a cocktail of carcinogenic metals linked to coal ash proving ground water contamination had moved off site into residential drinking wells.  Aerial surveillance proved Dominion had drained an entire 52 million gallon ash pond of waste water into Quantico Creek. After demanding an EPA investigation, our legal team uncovered a Dominion Engineering document proving 27.5 million gallons of contaminated ash water had been dumped into Quantico Creek.  All the while, Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality denied any waste water from Dominion’s ash ponds had been drained into the creek.

“It is not easy to tell someone you believe their drinking wells are contaminated and unknowingly poisoning themselves,” said Naujoks, “but at the same time they have a right to know if their water is safe to drink!”

With growing momentum, we hosted public forums attended by hundreds of people, engaged elected officials, and mobilized coalition partners and the public to join our “Move Your Ash” coal ash campaign. Property owners on Possum Point Road became outspoken after learning that that they had raised their children on unsafe well water and the state never bothered to tell them.  Our coalition’s outreach committee generated over 1000 calls, emails, and letters to elected officials in support of coal ash legislation. In January of this year, the Virginia legislature passed a bill requiring at least 7 million of the 30 million tons of coal ash in the state be recycled and the rest safely landfilled within 15 years!

Dominion’s original plan was to cover the toxic ponds and hope for the best.  If they had been successful, all eleven of Dominion’s ash ponds containing 28 million tons of toxin-laden coal ash in pits located all across Virginia would have been capped in place. Without a Riverkeeper conducting their own investigations, informing the public, and pressuring state agencies to take action, these decades of unimpeded pollution would have continued.