Thursday, December 27, 2018

Scott Surovell’s Push to Remove Coal Ash from Possum Point

There is a whole lot of coal ash in Prince William County-3.7 million tons of the stuff. It is all sitting on a peninsula where Quantico Creek meets the Potomac River in eastern Prince William County, known as Possum Point. 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 an existing surface impoundment.

State Senator Scott Surovell is fighting that plan and plans to draft legislation for the next session of the General Assembly prohibiting that. Senator Surovell whose district includes Possum Point wants the coal ash to be recycled or hauled away. Recycling the coal ash is also the option favored by the Southern Environmental Law Center and me.

If you recall, in 2017 Virginia’s General Assembly passed a bill that required Dominion Power to study and report on the costs and benefits, risks and recycling options for the 30million tons of coal ash now stored in lagoons at the company’s power plants across the state. Governor McAuliffe amended the bill to include 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 could be completed.

The consultant for Dominion Power prepared a report that examines the expenses and time frames for the three methods of disposal or recycling the coal ash: recycling for use in concrete, cinder block or wallboard; hauling it to a modern, lined landfill by truck, barge or rail; and Dominion’s original plan of consolidating all of the on-site coal ash into one impoundment , dewatering and closing in place. According to a report in the Prince William Times, Dominion Power obtained bids for recycling the coal ash at between $126-$942 million and costs for closing the coal ash ponds in place at between $137 to $418 million.

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 there that Dominion Power has consolidated into one pond. 

The groundwater monitoring at Possum Point has found occasional instances where tests of downgradient wells showed elevated levels of heavy metals associated with coal ash. Monitoring has found traces of arsenic, boron, cadmium, calcium, chloride, cobalt, hardness, iron, lithium, manganese, nickel, phenol, sodium, sulfate, total dissolved solids (TDS), and zinc down gradient of the coal ash pond where all the coal ash had been consolidate, Pond D; however, the concentrations found were below the federal Safe Drinking Water Standards for those substances that have them (lithium does not have a drinking water standard). 

Dominion Power has only tested the shallow aquifer up-gradient and down-gradient of Pond D. Groundwater impacts were observed. As Dominion Points out no impact to human health or the environment was found, but it was not looked for, either. You do not find what is not tested for. It is clear by the presence of contaminants in the surrounding aquifer that the coal ash ponds at Possum Point were not adequately lined or had a functioning barrier (there is some question if there was a slurry wall installed to prevent impact to the groundwater in 1988) there is clearly hydraulic communication between Pond D and the surrounding groundwater.

The coal ash has been impacting groundwater for decades. Pond D does not appear to have adequate containment for the coal ash to be permanently disposed in. Additional groundwater monitoring is needed to determine what corrective measures are needed to restore the groundwater. As Senator Surovell argues the best option even at a high cost that will ultimately be borne by electric rate payers is recycling of the coal ash into concrete and road base.

I disagree with Senator Srovell and believe that the next best option is properly disposing the coal ash on site. However, to do this properly, Dominion Power needs to build a new disposal pond with a synthetic impermeable liner and comply with all the monitoring requirements of modern landfills. All physical barriers fail over time. This risk is best controlled by monitoring and maintenance; and Possum Point is downstream from most drinking water supplies and residents. Moving the coal ash would only make sure that ultimately more locations in Virginia will be impacted.

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