Monday, February 13, 2017

Coal Ash Bill Goes to the House of Delegates

Last week marked the halfway point of the 2017 Virginia General Assembly session, known as "Crossover." Crossover is when both the House and Senate finish work on legislation originating in that body and pass the legislation to the other body. One of the bills that originated in the Senate, SB 1398, sponsored by state Sen. Scott Surovell, D-36th and Sen. Amanda Chase R-11th titled: Coal combustion residuals unit; closure permit, assessments required, passed the Senate by a vote of 29 to 11 after being amended in committee. The bill moves on to the House of Delegates.

This bill prohibits the Director of the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) from issuing a permit for the closure of coal ash pond (technically called “coal combustion residuals unit”) until the Director has reviewed an assessment of closure options prepared by the owner or operator of the coal ash ponds and is a direct response to Dominion Power’s pending closure of their Possum Point, Bremo, and Chesterfield Power Station pending coal ash pond closures. Applacian Power is also closing coal ash ponds at their Glen Lyn, Chesapeake Energy and Clinch River power plants. SB 1398 would require that the owner or operator of the coal ash pond:

  1. Identify and describe any groundwater or surface water pollution located at or caused by the coal ash storage. 
  2. Evaluate the clean closure of the coal ash through excavation and responsible recycling or reuse of coal ash.
  3. Evaluate the clean closure of the coal ash through the excavation and removal of the coal ash residuals to a dry, lined storage in an appropriately permitted and monitored landfill, including an analysis of the impact that any responsible recycling or reuse options would have on such excavation and removal.
  4. Demonstrate the long-term safety of the coal ash storage, addressing any long-term risks posed by the proposed closure plan and siting.

The coal ash is the byproduct of burning coal to make electricity. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has determined that coal ash is solid waste, not hazardous waste tough it contains heavy metals, including lead, arsenic, boron, selenium and hexavalent chromium. The EPA finalized regulations in 2016 for coal ash storage and disposal. The finalized EPA regulation for coal ash requires that coal ash disposal site must have protective liners to prevent groundwater contamination. The rule also requires companies to conduct monitoring of disposal sites, clean up any existing contamination, and close and remediate unlined disposal sites that have polluted groundwater. Finally, monitoring data, corrective action reports, and other important information about the site must be made available to the public.

Possum Point in Prince William County is the first power plant in Virginia to apply for a solid waste permit to permanently close the coal ash ponds on site. Dominion used coal to fire the turbines for the Possum Point, Power Station located on the banks of Quantico Creek and the Potomac River, from about 1948 to 2003. There were 5 coal ash ponds on site: A-E. Coal ash Ponds A, B, and C are currently being decommissioned. One million cubic yards of coal ash from those ponds was moved into Pond D, a 120-acre pond that already contained 2.6 million cubic yards of coal ash. Coal ash Pond E is being decommissioned and was replaced with a water treatment system that began operation this past summer.

Once the consolidation and dewatering are completed, the coal ash pond will be capped with an impermeable membrane to prevent infiltration of rain in the future.  Dominion’s closure plan should have included additional site investigation to demonstrate to the stakeholders in the community that the liner in coal ash Pond D is sound. The public, environmental groups, county supervisors and state Senators and Delegates have voice concerns. Many are well founded, and the process of obtaining permits for the closure was far from satisfactory to most stakeholders. Last fall Dominion Power agreed to install additional groundwater monitoring wells and conduct bi-weekly monitoring of the new wells.

The recent sampling of those wells showed elevated levels of boron, chloride, cobalt, nickel, sulfate and zinc upstream of the ponds. This was inconsistent with the model of the geology and groundwater in the area that Dominion has used in their permit applications. Groundwater often surprises you. Though, Dominion maintains that there is no evidence that its ash ponds have contaminated drinking water wells near the site, they have announced that they will pay for the homes near the Possum Point Power Plant to be hooked up to the Prince William County Public Service Authority water or receive water filtration systems. Offering the neighbors peace of mind and a safe source of drinking water is the right thing to do.

In addition it is essential that testing of groundwater, surface water sediments, and the water treated at the outfalls should have been done for a broader spectrum of contaminants to better protect the environment and determine the extent of impact if any from the decades storage of the coal ash on site. It is possible that trace contaminants including metals (and potentially hexavalent chromium) in the coal ash have already leached into the groundwater, Quantico Creek and Potomac from the coal ash ponds. 

Permanently disposing of the coal ash on site, when properly done, can be protective of the environment and water resources, but requires an effective liner and cap separating the coal ash from the groundwater and rain in addition to ongoing monitoring and maintenance.  Moving coal ash to another site for disposal, could potentially risk groundwater at another location unless the landfill monitors their site for the traces of metals that are common constituents of the coal ash. All physical barriers fail over time this is addressed by the monitoring and maintaining the systems. I have always believed that Dominion Power should have relined the pond at the beginning of this process, provided public water hookups for the residents and expanded monitoring. Now the Generally Assembly may step in.