Monday, April 3, 2017

Governor Proposes to Restore Coal Ash Bill

Last month Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe proposed an amendment to a bill passed by the General Assembly in last winter’s session that requires Dominion Power to study and report on the costs and benefits, risks and recycling options for coal ash now stored in lagoons at the company’s power plants- including the Possum Point Power Station in Prince William County. The Governor’s amendment will restore a moratorium until 2018 on any new permits for coal ash disposal until a study of its risks and possible alternatives for coal ash disposal can be completed.

The bill was sponsored by Sen. Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax) and Sen. Amanda Chase (R-Chesterfield). Scott Surovell’s district includes the Possum Point site. The governor’s amendment would need to be approved by Virginia’s Senate and House of Delegates when they reconvene on April 5, 2017.

In addition in the March 7th 2017 meeting of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors, the Board formally requested that the state delay its decision on the permit until alternatives to the storage plan could be more fully considered. The Board also wrote a letter to the governor that asks that Dominion be required to obtain a third-party analysis of alternatives for permanent disposal or recycling.

If you recall the final 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. SB 1398 would require that the owner or operator of the coal ash pond:
  • Evaluate the clean closure of the coal ash through excavation and responsible recycling or reuse of coal ash.
  • 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.
  • Demonstrate the long-term safety of the coal ash storage, addressing any long-term risks posed by the proposed closure plan and siting.
  • Identify and describe any groundwater or surface water pollution located at or caused by the coal ash storage. 
  • That notwithstanding the provisions of this act, the Director of the Department of Environmental Quality (the Director) shall not suspend, delay, or defer the issuance of any permit to provide for the closure of any coal ash ponds pending the completion by the owner or operator of the assessment. In deciding whether to issue any such permit, the Director need not include or rely upon his review of any such assessment.

The Governor’s amendment would remove the final exemption from the bill’s assessment requirement before issuing a permit.

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. 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. Dominion Power is proceeding with a plan to “close in place” the 3.7 million cubic yards of coal ash by consolidating and dewatering the coal ash into a coal ash pond they claim is lined, but the adequacy and effectiveness of the old clay liner has been questioned since they proposed this plan.

Dominion Power is trying to obtain a permit to allow them permanently close in place the coal ash by capping the clay lined ponds with an impermeable membrane to prevent infiltration of rain in the future. These old coal ash ponds have been open to the elements and taking on water for decades as well as being in contact with shallow groundwater as was disclosed in the permit applications and modifications. The amendment would require that Dominion do further studies of impact and complete the analysis of the risks of disposal on site and alternatives.

The public, environmental groups, county supervisors and state Senators and Delegates have voice concerns. Many are well founded, but still the process of obtaining permits for the closure was far from satisfactory to most stakeholders; disjointed and unresponsive. If you recall last fall Dominion Power agreed to install additional groundwater monitoring wells and conduct bi-weekly monitoring of the new wells. This brought the total number of monitoring wells to 24 and provided enhanced monitoring and protection for Quantico Creek, the upstream neighbors and the Potomac River from the dewatering of the coal ash ponds at Dominion’s Possum Point Power Station.

The recent sampling of those wells showed elevated levels of boron, chloride, cobalt, nickel, sulfate and zinc upstream of the ponds. The new sampling results were 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. Though 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; however, the current level of impact needs to be investigated and monitored for the environment and potential potable uses of the groundwater.

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. All physical barriers fail over time this is addressed by the monitoring and maintaining the systems. 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.

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