Sunday, Aug. 21, The Virginian-Pilot published the below guest column from Virginia LCV Deputy Director Greta Bagwell focusing on the need for long-term, safe storage of coal ash across the state.
TODAY, COAL ACCOUNTS for less of Virginia’s energy makeup than at any time in our state’s history, a decline likely to continue due to economic realities and clear negative environmental impact.
While coal no longer dominates our energy mix, we have not been able to escape its toxic legacy. It comes in the form of coal ash, and if we don’t act now, we will simply pass this problem off to our children.
For years, utilities have stored coal ash in what are basically holes in the ground where this byproduct of burning coal gets mixed with water. The majority of these holding ponds in Virginia predate any sort of modern environmental regulation to keep the heavy-metal laden waste from leaching off-site and contaminating the water we drink.
After massive spills from facilities in Tennessee and North Carolina — the latter making its way downstream into Virginia waters that lead to Lake Gaston — the Environmental Protection Agency required existing ponds to be closed and any future ash from coal plants to be stored in lined landfills.
In doing so, EPA gave utilities three options: drain the ponds and excavate remaining solid waste to a protected, lined landfill; empty impoundments and cap them in place with fill dirt and a synthetic liner; or turn the waste into a useful product like bricks or concrete.
These options run a fairly large gamut in terms of long-term environmental impact. Unfortunately, Dominion Power is taking the least environmentally responsible approach with its plans to cap coal ash ponds in place at four sites: Bremo Power Station in Fluvanna County, Possum Point Power Station in Dumfries, Chesterfield Power Station in Chester and the Chesapeake Energy Center in Hampton Roads.
All told, Dominion will be closing 11 ponds and one landfill. Each of these sites is either on a public waterway or tributary, making proper long-term coal ash storage a public health necessity. While Dominion insists its cap-in-place plans are environmentally responsible, as long as coal ash waste stays in place with nothing between it and groundwater, we are at risk.
Independent researchers have already found offsite contamination from Dominion coal ash sites. Both the Bremo Bluff and Chesterfield plants were cited in a recent Duke University study as facilities in Virginia that are contaminating local waterways with elevated levels of cancer-causing arsenic, boron and selenium.
Arsenic concentrations at one Bremo Bluff test site were more than four times the EPA mandated limit for safe drinking water. Additionally, independent testing done on private wells near the Possum Point power station found elevated levels of hexavalent chromium, a chemical shown to drastically elevate cancer rates and the one made famous in the movie “Erin Brockovich.” State testing revealed arsenic concentrations at one well near the Dominion’s Chesapeake plant have been 30 times higher than the safe standard.
With clear impacts to our waterways already being felt at each facility, why does Dominion want to leave this waste onsite?
It comes down to the company’s bottom line.
When a bill came up in the last legislative session that would have required clean closure of coal ash sites by excavating solid waste and moving it into a lined landfill, Dominion lobbied against it, citing its own outrageous cost figures. They estimated it would cost $3 billion — plus or minus 50 percent — to fully excavate each site.
In comparison, Georgia Power has estimated it will cost $1.5 billion to $2 billion to close 29 ponds in its state, including full excavation of 16 impoundments near waterways. South Carolina’s Santee Cooper is currently removing 11 million tons of ash for a mere $22 per ton, and it has not had to raise rates to do so.
Dominion has been working hard to boost its public persona as a “green” utility. It cannot continue to claim to be an environmental steward by keeping millions upon millions of tons of toxic coal ash waste in unlined pits next to public waterways.
Covering coal ash sites with dirt and planting grass may look nice and clean, but it’s not a long-term solution: it’s a superficial, quick fix and a one-size-fits all approach to what is at the end of the day a very complex environmental threat.
We need to get this right. The only surefire fix is to move this waste away from our waterways. It’s what’s right for the health of our environment and families across Virginia.
Greta Bagwell serves as deputy director with the Virginia League of Conservation Voters. Email: email@example.com.