Op-ed: Leadership, scrutiny needed on coal ash disposal (Free Lance-Star)

Sunday, Oct. 23, The (Fredericksburg) Free Lance-Star published the below op-ed from Virginia LCV Deputy Director Greta Bagwell criticizing Dominion Power’s flawed coal ash disposal plans and pushing Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe to show leadership on the issue.

Column: Leadership, scrutiny needed on coal ash disposal

“GRETA, do I need to start buying bottled water?” a friend and concerned mother recently asked me.

“Not yet,” I replied. “But maybe soon.”

She was, of course, referring to Virginia’s coal ash closure plans and recent reports that contaminated waste storage sites have been leaching heavy metals such as arsenic and hexavalent chromium into adjacent surface waters and private wells.

Any parent should be on high alert. If left to their own devices, Dominion power will proceed with the quickest and cheapest closure plans for its 11 coal ash ponds in Virginia, plans that could put families and clean water at long-term risk.

The four power plant sites in question are all located on the banks of waterways, including one in Dumfries that threatens the Potomac River, a main Chesapeake Bay tributary.

Dominion either has the state permits in hand to drain, treat and discharge water from these ponds or is actively doing so. Once they’re drained, at almost all of these sites, Dominion wants to keep millions of tons of remaining solid coal ash in place in pits that predate any actual environmental safeguards. They’re essentially massive holes in the ground.

Across the South, other electricity utilities are doing the right thing for water quality by excavating and removing coal ash away from the banks of rivers and creeks and transferring it to safe, lined storage in modern, state-of-the-art landfills.

But here in Virginia, under a process called “cap-in-place,” Dominion plans to merely cover this same toxic waste with a thin plastic liner and some fill dirt. This meets the bare minimum of what’s required of utilities under EPA’s closure guidelines drafted in the wake of major environmental disasters involving coal ash in Tennessee and North Carolina.

Will Virginia be the next victim of irresponsible coal ash management? Without strong leadership and intervention from our top elected officials, the answer could be yes.

The McAuliffe administration has claimed its hands are tied when it comes to coal ash—that there’s nothing it can do to ensure clean closure at Dominion sites. But this course of inaction runs contrary to how our governor has handled other pressing issues.

Time after time, Gov. Terry McAuliffe has shown he’s not afraid to intervene to do what’s right for the citizens of this commonwealth. From executive orders on rights restoration, climate change and gun safety, and a relentless push for Medicaid expansion in Virginia, McAuliffe has proven himself as something of a political maverick, willing to go out on a limb to do what’s right regardless of what blowback may come his way.

It’s time for him to be that same leader when it comes to protecting Virginians from coal ash. Gov. McAuliffe could easily direct his agencies to hit a pause button on the permitting process to allow time for stakeholders to review how coal ash can be handled in the best way possible. A one-size-fits-all approach to a very serious environmental threat simply doesn’t pass the smell test, and we have only one chance to get this right. If this process fails, future generations of Virginians will pay the price.

Time is also of the essence. Dominion officials would like to have solid waste permits in hand before the General Assembly convenes in January.

Why? Because they know there’s proven bipartisan support in the legislature to require clean coal-ash closure through full excavation and remediation of these sites. A bill this year failed to make it out of committee on a razor-thin margin, and this issue has only grown more galvanized since then in the minds of the public and their representatives at the statehouse.

Unfortunately, we’ve seen what a breakdown in leadership can mean for water safeguards. Flint, Mich., taught us this hard lesson, and it will take decades for citizens there to again put faith in their elected officials and environmental agencies.

We have the opportunity to avoid a similar crisis of faith here in Virginia by doing the right thing when it comes to managing coal ash. But Gov. McAuliffe needs to act now by putting the health and well-being of Virginia families first. If he doesn’t, we might all be buying more bottled water for years to come and thinking of him with each twist of the cap.

Greta Bagwell is deputy director of the Virginia League of Conservation Voters.