Thursday, July 30, 2015

Our Sewers and Waste Water in the DC Region


The most essential infrastructure in our Washington DC Metropolitan region and anywhere are the portions that are almost invisible, but essential to the American way of life- water, sewage and power. The water infrastructure for the Washington Metropolitan region which provides our homes, schools, businesses and public buildings with healthy, reliable water and sanitation and plays a key role in protecting public health and maintaining and restoring the quality of our rivers and streams. There are three main types of water infrastructure: drinking water, wastewater and stormwater.

District of Columbia's sewage system is actually one of the oldest in the United States, and dates to around 1810, when the first sewers and culverts were constructed to drain stormwater and groundwater carrying sewage and muck from the streets of Washington D.C. Epidemics of smallpox, typhoid and malaria during and after the Civil War lead to an expansion of the system, though the system simply moved the waste from streets and open canals into rivers and estuaries. Washington DC did not start treating the sewage waste until 1937 when the Blue Plains sewage treatment plant was built. Blue Plains is still operating today when the treats to public health include MRSA (Methicillin-resistant S. aureus).

MRSA causes difficult-to-treat and potentially fatal antibiotic resistant bacterial infections that in the late 1990s began to appear outside the hospital setting in the greater community. The incidence of these so called “community-acquired” MRSA infections has been increasing in the United States. Scientist from the University of Maryland found that MRSA was present in 83% of the raw sewage samples taken at four waste water treatment plants in Maryland. The percentage of MRSA positive samples decreased as treatment within the waste water treatment plant progressed, and the MRSA bacteria did not survive in the plants that used chlorination, a tertiary step in wastewater treatment.

Today most of the Washington DC region’s waste water treatment plants use tertiary treatment and the waste water is treated to meet the stringent standards to protect the Potomac estuary and Chesapeake Bay where most of the regional waste water treatment plants discharge. Waste water treatment plants with tertiary treatment are called “advanced” waste water treatment plants, but that is not as modern as it sounds. 

At waste water treatment plants primary treatment screens wastewater, and performs some rudimentary treatment to remove crude solids of human waste, all the trash flushed down toilets and skim off grease, oil and fat. Then wastewater sits in settling tanks, which are designed to hold the wastewater for several hours. During that time, most of the heavy solids fall to the bottom of the tank, where they become a thick slurry known as primary sludge. Primary Treatment consists of sedimentation and removal of large debris using screens and the large settling tanks. Until 1960’s primary treatment was the only form of sewage treatment in most sewage plants.

Secondary treatments usually includes biological and/or chemical treatment. One of the most common biological treatments is the activated sludge process; in which primary wastewater is mixed with bacteria that break down organic matter and cleans the water. Oxygen is pumped into the mixture. A clarifying tank allows sludge to settle to the bottom and then the treated wastewater moves on for tertiary treatment.

Coagulation, filtration and disinfection take place in tertiary treatment. A coagulant is added, the commonly used high-lime process can reduce phosphorus to below 0.10 mg/L. This process also serves as a barrier to viruses, captures organics leaving secondary treatment, and precipitates heavy metals and other suspended particles. Coagulation is followed by filtration which removes organic matter, microorganisms, minerals and excess nutrients. The final barrier to pathogens is a chlorination and dechlorination processes.

Since 1978, the upper Occoquan Sewage Authority (an advanced waste water treatment plant) has been discharging tertiary treated water into a stream above Occoquan Reservoir, one of the two potable water supply sources for Fairfax County, Virginia. Recycled water has been part of the Occoquan supply for 34 years and chances are if you are in Fairfax, parts of Prince William and Loudoun counties you have been regularly drinking recycled water. Fairfax Water fully treats and tests all water they send out as potable. The Occoquan Watershed Laboratory (OWL), operated by the Virginia Polytechnic Institute Department of Civil Engineering conducts comprehensive studies of the Occoquan water quality, and effects of the waste water treatment effluents on the watershed and water supply.

The Washington DC metropolitan area has 24 regional waste water treatment plants that treat 90% of the regions waste water. About 10% of the region is served by on-site septic systems. Combined, the waste water treatment plants treated an average of 544 million gallons of water a day in 2013. Blue Plains remains the largest plant in the region. The Washington DC region also has over 16,000 miles of pipes and pumping stations that move sewage from our homes to the waste water treatment plants. Due to the age of the Washington DC and Alexandria systems, parts of those systems are what is called combined systems where sewer and stormwater are carried through the same pipes. These systems tend to be overwhelmed by the volume of water during rain storms.

The Blue Plains Advanced Waste Water Treatment Plant is under a consent order from the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, to meet new effluent limits for total nitrogen released and better control of the system during storms and has just completed boring a four-and-a-half-mile-long tunnel that will be used to store the excess storm and sewage water flow during rains and reduce releases of raw sewage into the Anacostia River. This tunnel is part of a $7.8 billion 20 year improvement program called the Clean Rivers Project.

In 2013 the Washington DC region spent about $1.3 billion on capital investments primarily at the waste water treatment plants and spend $950 in operating cost for their waste water systems. The majority of this money was spent at the central waste water treatment plants. Though the region’s waste water treatment plants have made sizable investment to meet the U.S. EPA discharge permit limits, less has been spent of the sewer piping system. The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments that over $1 billion will need to be spent each year to replace and properly maintain the aging sewer pipes, pumps and valves in the waste water gathering system. As our aging sewers fail, public health and the water quality of our rivers, streams and estuaries are threatened.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Our DC Region's Water Problems

The ability to expand and sustain any region in the United States is directly connected to the health and sustainability of the Region’s infrastructure and water resources. The most essential of the infrastructure are the portions that are almost invisible, but nonetheless essential to the American way of life- water, sewage and power. If we fail to strengthen and maintain these systems or allow unplanned and unsustainable growth, the systems will crumble, our utilities will become unreliable and we will become like India where sewage is untreated and water arrives for the lucky an hour a day.

The water infrastructure for the Washington Metropolitan Area which provides our homes, schools, businesses and public buildings with healthy, reliable water and sanitation and plays a key role in protecting public health and restoring and maintaining the quality of our rivers and streams. There are three main types of water infrastructure: drinking water, wastewater and stormwater. The systems are all connected by the rivers and streams and the water cycle itself. For example the Upper Occoquan waste water treatment plant officially known as the UOSA Water Reclamation Plant releases its treated water into Bull Run which joins with the Occoquan River to feed the Occoquan Reservoir and supply Fairfax Water. 
  
I will begin talking about the drinking water infrastructure and supply. Regionally, the drinking water infrastructure includes surface water intakes, wells, reservoirs, water treatment plants, water storage, pumps stations, 14,500 miles of water distribution lines, control valves, 114,000 fire hydrants, and water connectors and meters. This infrastructure is owned and operated by the region’s 28 water companies and serves more than 5.3 million people.

Three water utilities, the Washington Aqueduct, the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC) and Fairfax Water are the primary wholesale suppliers of the regions drinking water. For example: Arlington is supplied its water from the Washington Aqueduct, Prince William purchases water from Fairfax Water etc. In addition, there are small community supply wells and it is estimated that 250,000-500,000 people obtain their water from private wells in our region. 

Regionally we recycle sewage to drinking water

The region’s three big water utilities use surface water as their primary source of drinking water supply (88%-90%). The Potomac River provides about 4 million people with water. The Occoquan Reservoir in Virginia and the Patuxent River in Maryland provide another million people with water. Water supply is not unlimited, but is adequate to meet the peak demands of the region for the short term and possibly longer if we incorporate sustainability into all aspects of our lives. There are real limits to the water that can be taken from our rivers reliably and responsibly and we need to plan within those limits. However, the water delivery system is beginning to experience more frequent failures. 
from WSSC 2015

Water is paid for by charging by the gallon. To keep water prices low even as water usage in the region peaked 30 years ago, distribution companies have often cut their investments in maintaining their distribution systems. They have priced their water to pay only for the water treatment (pay the wholesalers) and emergency repairs. The water companies chose to repair piping after it failed instead of maintaining a planned repair schedule. Those failures predominantly happen in the winter. The fluctuation in temperature is tough on water mains, especially the older ones.

DC Water is a relatively small distribution system but averages about 500 water main breaks a year and has some of the oldest pipes in the region. Yet, their capital program was for many years designed to replace the distribution over a 300 year cycle. Pipes and valves are designed to last about 80 years. Pretty much DC water was planning for the failure of the system. In the past decade the replacement cycle has been shortened to 100 years, but that is too slow a pace for the aging system and unless additional investments are made, the District will experience an increasing rate of water disruptions. 
from WSSC


WSSC reportedly has on average 600 water main breaks in January each year (the worst month) and about 50 in June. About a quarter of WSSC’s 5,600 miles of water mains in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties are over 50 years old. The WSSC is currently replacing 55 miles of water pipe each year. Fairfax Water maintains a replacement schedule to replace the entire system over 76 years.
The regions drinking water infrastructure is made up of billions of dollars of capital assets a significant portion that are buried in the ground. It takes a large annual investments to operated and preserve the water treatment and distribution system. The region’s drinking water utilities are currently making approximately $1.5 billion in capital investments each year and have operation and maintenance budgets of approximately $1.3 billion per year. This $2.8 billion spent annually is not enough to maintain 24/7 water to our homes and businesses.

Though the regions water utilities have made substantial investment to upgrade the central plants to meet regulatory standards and improve water quality, they have ignored non-regulatory driven system maintenance and improvements. A scheduled and planned replacement program would allow the coordination among infrastructure sectors when pipes are being replaced, sewage pipes could be replaced, electrical cables re-laid, roads repaired. Our water distribution system is at risk of increasing rates of failure as the water utilities face the need to replace the aging pipes and valves to maintain service.


Thursday, July 23, 2015

Restoring the Coastal Plain Aquifer

from USGS

Groundwater in the Coastal Plain region in eastern Virginia is being used up. This has been confirmed by measurements of groundwater levels, modeling of the aquifer system by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and measurements of changes in gravity by the National Aeronautics Space Administration (NASA). At the most recent meeting of the Potomac Watershed Roundtable, Michael Alter PG and Jason Early PG of Clear Creek Associates gave a presentation about utilizing artificial aquifer recharge for managing the sustainability of water resources in the Coastal Plain.

Overdrawing a groundwater aquifer can have many negative impacts on the regional hydraulic balance- a reduction in discharge to surface water at some other location, an increase in recharge from surface water, a loss of storage in the aquifer by falling water table or a loss of an aquifer by salt water intrusion or some combination of these effects. To remain a renewable resource the amount of groundwater removed from an aquifer needs to match the recharge rate. The Geologists from Clear Creek Associates suggested that Virginia increase the recharge rate of the groundwater aquifer using a recharge well. What we consume much be replaced. We either consume less groundwater or we utilize artificial recharge of the aquifer.

The rate of groundwater withdrawal from the Virginia Coastal Plain is currently unsustainable. The withdrawal rate of groundwater increased continuously during the 20th century. By the 2003 the withdrawal rates from Coastal Plain aquifers in Virginia totaled approximately 117 million gallons per day. As a result, groundwater levels had declined by as much as 200 feet near the large withdrawal centers of West Point and Franklin, Virginia the home of paper mills.

Since 2003 the water level has continued to fall despite the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (VA DEQ) regulating groundwater withdrawals in the Virginia Coastal Plain through the VA DEQ Groundwater Withdrawal Permit Program. The Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellite mission from NASA that has been collecting data for more than a decade confirmed this. The GRACE satellites measure monthly changes in total earth water storage by converting observed gravity anomalies measured from space. The researchers have recently published the analysis the 10 years of GRACE data (2003 to 2013) to quantify groundwater use, resilience and stability over time.

Despite the water rich climate, the Atlantic Coastal Plain aquifer is under stress and is being used beyond it recharge rate. It is only a matter of time until areas within the historic boundary of the aquifer subside and begin to go dry and subside. These days recharge of groundwater through spreading basins, pits, and injection or drainage wells is becoming more widely practiced. However, there are many challenges to recharging groundwater. The first is geologic.

In the Coastal Plain, groundwater is present in pores between the sediment grains with the bottom surface of the Coastal Plain aquifer in Virginia resting on the top surface of basement bedrock, which serves as the lower boundary of the entire Coastal Plain aquifer system. The top surface of the Potomac aquifer in Virginia slopes generally to the east and consists of mostly of layers of clay that are not entirely continuous, allowing some interchange between the surface and the Coastal Plain Aquifer. Most of the recharge of the aquifer occurs at the Fall Line. Of an estimated 10 inches per year of recharge at the water table along the Fall Lone, approximately 9 inches per year remains perched above the clay layer and travels only a short distance before being discharged into to nearby streams and rivers (McFarland, 1997, 1999). Only the remaining 1 inch per year manages to enter the regional flow system as recharge to deeper, down gradient parts of the Coastal Plain Aquifer.

The predominant geology of this area of Virginia would make artificial recharge almost impossible using anything except for recharge using injection wells directly into an aquifer. Artificially recharged water must first move through the clay zone and the only effective method is to use a recharging well. The Geologists from Clear Creek Associates utilized the groundwater system model developed by the USGS to simulate the effect of a 10 million gallon a day recharge well to inject reclaimed water directly into the groundwater aquifer.
from USGS
Though this was only an exercise in exploring ideas, waiting too long may make the task impossible. Areas where ground subsidence caused by excess withdraws of groundwater from the fine-grained compressible confining beds of sediments cannot be recharged. In addition, care must be taken in determining the ideal location for a recharge well; geological characteristics such as faults with significant offset, folds, and extensive coarse- or fine-grained sedimentary geological units can control both groundwater flow and the fate of water from artificial recharge. Groundwater is not an underground bathtub of water, the site specific geology and regional hydrology will determine the ability to recharge the aquifer and where that recharge must take place.

In addition, if we are to solve our water sustainability problems using artificial recharge we must protect the water quality of the Coastal Plain Aquifer from possible contamination. If we recharge the groundwater aquifer with treated waste water we are potentially introducing precursors of disinfection byproducts, trace Pharmaceuticals and personal care products and many other contaminants into our groundwater aquifers. Before we use any source of water to recharge the groundwater aquifer to maintain the supply of available water, we need to better understand what contaminants (and emerging contaminants) that survive treatment and are carried in the wastewater and other water supplies. The groundwater aquifer serves to dilute the wastewater contaminants that survive treatment, but we need to be honest and informed about what we are putting into or leaving in what is ultimately our drinking water supply.

Reducing water use in the region to a sustainable level for the Coastal Plain Aquifer seems an impossible task and would be economically devastation. We are left with either adding reservoirs and surface water systems or utilizing the water store capacity of the groundwater aquifer. We cannot wait too long to take action.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Dominion Power Open House

Last Wednesday night Dominion Power held an informational open house meeting at Battlefield High School to discuss the new power lines. The cafeteria was filled with easels with large scale maps and the tables containing larger details of some of the 10 considered power line routes that are either under consideration or have been considered for the Dominion Power proposed 230 kilovolt double circuit transmission line to run through the region that would start at an existing power facility south of the Interstate 66. The maps on display were large enough that I could pick out my house, but appeared to be more than 6 years old, by certain features that have changed in the region.

The room was filled with wandering and nice Dominion Power employees and consultants who knew the script, but not much more. There was however at least one transmission engineer present to address technical questions. The public who attended and included two bus loads from Summerset Crossing, Haymarket and Rural Crescent residents, Delegate Bob Marshall, Supervisors Pete Candland, and Jeannie Lawson as well as some of their staff and a staff member for Supervisor Stewart. Delegate Marshall pointed out that the maps on display were not the same as the maps sent to local residents at the end of June. Dominion employees had no explanation for why they had chosen to not to display all 10 routes.

One of the missing routes was one of the so called New Road options, that had started the "stop Dominion Power" protests. These were routes studied, but not recommended would start in at the Wheeler substation and head north twenty plus miles. The other eight of the considered routes would start southeast of the Interstate 66-Prince William County Parkway intersection in Gainesville and go west 6 miles before turning north and depending on which option would impact the Rural Crescent and view vistas, or the suburban neighborhoods of Gainesville and Haymarket in Western Prince William County.

At the meeting Dominion Power confirmed that the need for the Haymarket 230kV Line and Substation project is due to the increased energy demand is not for future growth of the Haymarket area and the Rural Crescent of Prince William County, but rather for a single customer with the equivalent demand for power of 700,000 homes. This entire project is to deliver power to a data centers for Amazon. Dominion states that this will also strengthen electric reliability for the local area by providing a new source of power and a double circuit line or "loop" provides a networked source, but the locating of a data center outside of the industrial corridor is what is driving the need for the project. The Rural Crescent is not a growth area, or at least not intended to be.

Overwhelmingly, the public support was for only a single option the so called the “hybrid” route a very expensive option that would have a portion of the power lines buried along I-66 and spare the neighborhoods in Gainesville having 120 foot towers built in their communities that would impact their home values. Up close these towers are huge and dominate tighter developed locations. There is one along Logmill Road about a half a mile east from Route 15-check it out.

The routing for this project is not yet determined. The State Corporation Commission (SCC) is responsible for determining the need, route and environmental impact of transmission lines in Virginia. Dominion Power has studied 10 routes for the electric transmission lines. Though Dominion Power has only recommended the consideration of five of the ten routes, the SCC can select any of the 10 buildable routes. The proposed transmission line would be run on steel poles, with an average height of 110 feet, and require 100-120 foot wide path for the right of way, according to information available from Dominion Power.

While the questions being asked are which option is preferred by Dominion, the SCC and the communities impacted. The real question is should any of these options proceed. This whole project is about delivering power to a single end user for a data center. This is simply NOT an inappropriate land use in Western Prince William County. This project was approved as an amendment to the Comprehensive Plan. Our county Board of Supervisors needs to bring this project and the expansion of the power in this portion of the county to a full stop. Build something else, or require the land owner rather than the power customers to pay for the additional cost of the “hybrid” option (reportedly about $80 million according to the wandering Dominion employees). Rural enterprises should be developed in this area of the county: farmers’ markets, community-supported agriculture, restaurants or on-farm wineries and breweries. None of these businesses have an intensive need for power.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Case Dismissed


The Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) sued the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and the State Water Control Board to push for regulations that would require Virginia's largest livestock operations to fence off streams to keep their animals out of the water. CBF claimed that the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and the State Water Control Board erred in approving a new 10-year Virginia Pollution Abatement permit governing the state's largest confined dairy, cattle, pig, and poultry farms that allowed for voluntary installation of stream exclusion fencing.

Oral arguments were heard by Judge C.N. Jenkins Jr of the Richmond Circuit Court on July 2, 2015. CBF arguing the state is failing to protect streams, rivers, and the Chesapeake Bay by allowing farm animals unfettered access to streams. Jon Mueller, who argued the case for CBF said stream exclusion should be required to maintain buffer zones between surface waterways and where manure is applied. The foundation claims the word “applied” should not be limited to material spread by farmers, but also include that deposited directly by livestock.

Judge C.N. Jenkins Jr. said the word "applied," while ambiguous in the law, surely referred to the work of farmers, not cow and dismissed the case.


It surprised and offended me that CBF would choose litigation on this topic to advance their agenda and try to dictate their preference for command and control regulations. That is not how things are done in Virginia. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had recently completed an evaluation of Virginia’s animal agriculture programs.The EPA’s assessment looked at Virginia’s implementation of federal and state regulatory programs that manage the large scale permitted concentrated animal operations, as well as the voluntary incentive-based programs for animal operations and crop operations to meet the nutrient and sediment reduction commitments in its TMDL Watershed Implementation Plan (WIP). 

The voluntary programs are implementation of agricultural BMPs by farmers with the help of the Soil and Water Conservation Districts (where I volunteer) who oversee the cost share programs that are used to encourage farmers to use the BMPs on their farms. Thought there had been criticism that the agricultural programs were largely voluntary, the EPA found the programs to be effective and well implemented and monitored.

Last year the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) and the Choose Clean Water Coalition (CCWC) issued their report reviewing the results of the 2012-13 pollution reduction milestones against the states’ WIPs and found that “Virginia met its overall pollution reduction goals for 2013. Of the eight practices assessed, the Commonwealth met or exceeded its goals for fencing cattle out of streams and urban stream restoration, and was very close to meeting the goal for agricultural practices such as nutrient management, pasture management, and cover crops. Virginia fell short of its goals for forest buffers, conservation tillage, stormwater practices, urban nutrient management, and composite urban practices.” Yet, CBF sued us- maybe you want to reconsider where your donations go.

Monday, July 13, 2015

2015 Dead Zone




The recently released 2015 NOAA-funded forecast calls for a smaller than average dead zone in the Chesapeake Bay this summer. Scientists are predicting that the dead zone in the nation's largest estuary will cover a volume of 1.37 cubic miles, 10% lower than the long term average. The University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science attributes this smaller dead zone to the cool and relatively dry spring in Pennsylvania followed by late arriving rains the same thing that happened in 2013. The spring load of nutrients into the bay was light and locked in a lighter load of nutrients in the water layers within the Chesapeake Bay for the summer.

The forecast is based to a large extent on the quantity and timing of rainfall in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, but there is hope that this also reflects that the overall condition of the bay may be improving in response to the Chesapeake Bay Program coordinates U.S. Environmental Protection Agency mandated TMDL.

The predicted “dead zone” size is based on models that forecast the zone based on midsummer volume of the low-oxygen hypoxic zone, early-summer oxygen-free anoxic zone, and late-summer oxygen-free anoxic zone. The models were developed by NOAA-sponsored research at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science and the University of Michigan. They rely on nutrient loading estimates supplied by the U. S. Geological Survey. USGS estimates that 58 million pounds of nitrogen were transported to the Chesapeake Bay from January to May 2015, which is 29 % below average.

Later this year researchers will measure oxygen levels in the Chesapeake Bay. The model forecasts are then combined with the oxygen measurements taken during summer monitoring cruises to improve our understanding of how nutrients, hydrology, and other factors affect the size of the hypoxic zone. Improved understanding will result in improved the models which are used in turn to develop effective strategies for reducing dead zones.

Dead zones have become a yearly occurrence in the Chesapeake Bay and other estuaries. Dead zones form in summers when higher temperatures reduce the oxygen holding capacity of the water, the air is still and especially in years of heavy rains that carry excess nutrient pollution from cities and farms. The excess nutrient pollution combined with mild weather encourages the explosive growth of phytoplankton, which is a single-celled algae. While the phytoplankton produces oxygen during photosynthesis, when there is excessive growth of algae the light is chocked out and the algae die and fall from the warmer fresh water into the colder sea water. The phytoplankton is decomposed by bacteria, which consumes the already depleted oxygen in the lower salt level, leaving dead oysters, clams, fish and crabs in their wake.

In a wedge shaped estuary such as Chesapeake Bay where the layers of fresh and salt water are not well mixed, there are several sources of dissolved oxygen. The most important is the atmosphere. At sea level, air contains about 21% oxygen, while the Bay’s waters contain only a small fraction of a percent. This large difference between the amount of oxygen results in oxygen naturally dissolving into the water. This process is further enhanced by the wind, which mixes the surface of the water. The other important sources of oxygen in the water are phytoplankton and aquatic grasses which produce oxygen during photosynthesis, but when they die consume oxygen during decomposition by bacteria. Finally, dissolved oxygen flows into the Bay with the water coming from streams, rivers, and the Atlantic Ocean.
Nitrogen loads into the bay




Thursday, July 9, 2015

Millions of Tons of Coal Ash in Prince William County

There is a whole lot of coal ash in Prince William County-millions of tons of the stuff. It is all sitting on a peninsula where Quantico Creek meets the Potomac River in eastern Prince William County. All this coal ash was produced by Dominion Power at their Possum Point power plant. Coal ash is the remainder left after coal is burned to generate electricity. Dominion Power is proposing to “close in place” all that coal ash by capping a surface impoundment, and has begun to move more than 1 million cubic yards of coal ash into one impoundment at the Possum Point Power Station before obtaining final regulatory approval from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).

Coal ash includes a number of by-products produced from burning coal, including:
  • Fly Ash, a very fine, powdery material composed mostly of silica made from the burning of finely ground coal in a boiler.
  • Bottom Ash, a coarse, angular ash particle that is too large to be carried up into the smoke stacks so it forms in the bottom of the coal furnace.
  • Boiler Slag, molten bottom ash from slag tap and cyclone type furnaces that turns into pellets that have a smooth glassy appearance after it is cooled with water.
  • Flue Gas Desulfurization Material, a material leftover from the process of reducing sulfur dioxide emissions from a coal-fired boiler that can be a wet sludge consisting of calcium sulfite or calcium sulfate or a dry powered material that is a mixture of sulfites and sulfates.
Last December, EPA Administrator, Gina McCarthy, signed the Disposal of Coal Combustion Residuals from Electric Utilities final rule, and it was published in the Federal Register (FR) on April 17, 2015. While the new rule was years in development, a proposed rule was published in 2013, the Duke Energy coal ash spill in North Carolina in February 2014 brought the need to the attention of the public.

Shortly after the release of the new rule, Dominion Virginia Power announced that they will close all of the ash ponds at its Virginia power stations including those in Dumfries at Possum Point in compliance with rules. Dominion had been working on plans based on the 2013 proposed rule in order to be prepared for when the final rule took effect. Pamela Faggert, Dominion's chief environmental officer and vice president of Corporate Compliance said; "We are working with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality and other state agencies to develop closure plans that are in compliance with the new rules."

Possum Point from Google maps


According to the EPA, the final rule is the culmination of extensive study on the effects of coal ash on the environment and public health. The rule establishes technical requirements for disposing coal ash in landfills and surface impoundments under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), the nation's primary law for regulating solid waste. Under RCRA, coal ash has been determined to be a non-hazardous material. The new rule classifies coal ash as a “solid waste,” similar to standard household garbage, instead of designating it as a “hazardous waste and the regulations are based on landfill regulations.

Environmental groups and their lawyers had hoped that the EPA would find that coal ash was a hazardous waste when they filed a lawsuit in 2012 to compel EPA to complete a review of the regulations applying to coal ash and issue necessary revisions. The finalized regulation requires that new disposal sites cannot be located in areas designated as wetlands or earthquake zones. 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. Monitoring data, corrective action reports, and other important information about the site must be made available to the public.

For decades coal ash has been produced as a waste product from electricity generation, and is one of the largest types of industrial waste generated in the United States. According to the American Coal Ash Association's Coal Combustion Product Production & Use Survey Report, nearly 110 million tons of coal ash was generated in 2012. There are billions of tons of coal ash that need to be address nation wide.

Possum Point Power Station is owned by Dominion Power. It sits on a 650-acre site located in Dumfries Virginia in the eastern part of Prince William County that borders the Potomac River and the Quantico Creek. There are four generating units; three of which use natural gas as a fuel source, the other is oil fired. Two of the units that are fired using natural gas were converted from coal in May of 2003. Dominion Virginia Power has not burned coal at Possum Point for 13 years and is unlikely to burn coal to generate power in the future.

When EPA (and their contractors) surveyed coal ash ponds they found the ponds at Possum Point to be of “significant” hazard risk and to be in fair and satisfactory condition. Once Dominion has obtained the needed permits from DEQ the company intends to begin the actual closure work in Prince William which should improve the situation. The old unlined open ponds that have existed at Possum Point are being closed- properly, In May Dominion Power began work to consolidate all the coal ash into a single lined pond that will be dewatered, and capped with an impermeable membrane to prevent infiltration of rain that could carry contaminants into the groundwater.

For decades the millions of cubic yards of coal ash has sat in open ponds at Possum Point. Today there is estimated to be 3.7 million cubic yards of coal ash. According to preliminary regulatory disclosures, Dominion’s plan is to collect more than 1 million cubic yards of ash from four smaller ponds, put them in a 120-acre pond that already contains 2.6 million cubic yards of coal ash and cap it. The coals ash ponds being eliminated and properly closed predate modern environmental regulations and RCRA. The utility claims that the pond/ impoundment for all the ash is fully lined, but Southern Environmental Law Center. and the Potomac Riverkeeper Network contend it is only partially lined. In addition, state delegate Scott A. Surovell has called to remove all the coal ash from Possum Point and dispose of it elsewhere, though it is unclear where might be a better location.

However, it is essential to ensure that the liner for the coal ash permanent disposal pond is sound and fully covers the entire pond before Dominion proceeds with their closure plan. Moving waste from one site to another just creates another location for potential contamination from coal ash. These coal ash ponds have been open to the elements and taking on water for decades. Trace contaminants and metals in the coal ash have probably already leached into the groundwater, Quantico Creek and Potomac. Closing the coal ash on site would require continual monitoring and maintenance. This is probably best accomplished at an operating and regulated plant rather than at a remote cap and leave it location. All physical barriers fail over time this is addressed by monitoring and maintaining the systems.

 Possum Point is downstream from nearby drinking water supplies and is unlikely to impact local residents beyond what has already taken place over the decades. The closure plan should include site investigation to determine if groundwater has been impacted and ongoing monitoring of the groundwater to ensure that wetlands and the rivers are not impacted in the future. Dominion Power should fund expansion of the water well testing program we `run in Prince William County to allow well owners test their well water every year. Do it right, Dominion.