Millions of gallons of treated wastewater from coal ash ponds can be disposed in two major Virginia rivers — one a tributary of the Potomac River — the Virginia Water Control Board ruled Thursday.
The decision comes as some residents and environmentalists questioned the stringency of permits that allow Dominion Virginia Power to release wastewater with some levels of arsenic, lead, copper, and other substances into nearby waterways rich in wildlife. Wastewater will come from the Possum Point Power Plant located by Quantico Creek, and the Bremo Power Plant located by the James River.
“The public should be heartened by the fact that not only has [the state Department of Environmental Quality] and the state Water Control Board approved this process, but they also checked with the Environmental Protection Agency to make sure they were OK with it,” said Dan Genest, a spokesperson for Dominion.
The company sought these permits to comply with a recent federal Environmental Protection Agency mandate to safely close coal ash pits. Coal ash, which contains hazardous substances like arsenic, lead, and mercury, is the byproduct of burning coal for heat or energy. Coal ash is regulated similarly to household garbage.
Neither plant currently produces coal ash, as both have moved away from coal-generated energy, but both have coal ash stored from previous years. For decades energy companies like Dominion dumped coal ash in ditches before filling these holes with water. Usually unlined, these coal ash ponds or lagoons have been known to leak, and up until 2014 they were federally unregulated.
The Dominion plan to close its coal ash pits includes: draining water sitting on top of the ash, treating it, and releasing it following the prescribed limits. But because the ash that remains will still hold a considerable amount of water, it will need to be dewatered, following the treatment process allowed by the DEQ.
Bremo has 357 million gallons of coal ash water in three ponds, according to figures provided by Dominion. Possum Point has 244 million gallons in one clay-lined pond. The Possum Point permits set a maximum daily flow of 2.8 million gallons per day. For Bremo, the permit allows a maximum of 10.2 million gallons to be discharged into the river each day. The discharge is expected to last for two to three months for initial drawdown, according to DEQ, with smaller flows continuing for the remainder of the closure period.
It’s unclear when the company will start discharging water, but the process will likely start in less than a year. “We need to look at the limits that they have imposed on us for discharging wastewater into Quantico Creek, and we need to come up with the technologies and the engineering design for how we intend to meet those limits,” said Genest.
Critics meanwhile say the permits are too lax, and point to arsenic limits as an example. A similar permit in North Carolina applied arsenic limits of 14.5 milligrams per liter, while at Possum Point the limit is 15 times higher. In the Bremo case, the arsenic limit is slightly higher, at 530 milligrams per liter. The EPA’s arsenic limit to protect aquatic life is 150 milligrams per liter.
DEQ’s officials couldn’t be reached for comment, but the agency has told ThinkProgress that “in some aspects the [North Carolina] permit can be considered more stringent, and in other aspects the Virginia permits can be considered more stringent. The differences are related to specific regulations of each state.” The DEQ has also said that it believes the limits allowed in both cases won’t exacerbate current water quality.
Brad McLane, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, claims that Virginia is misapplying the Clean Water Act with these decisions. “Dilution is not the solution to pollution,” McLane said to ThinkProgress, while referring a famous theme used when the federal Clean Water Act was passed in 1972. “More than 43 years later, DEQs don’t think that,” he said.
The SELC, which is representing environmentalist groups, can appeal the decision in court. “So we are evaluating our options,” McLane said, “and seriously consider[ing] an appeal.”
Yet discharging treated coal ash wastewater marks only the beginning of capping and closing these pits. Dominion wants to close all its coal ash pits by 2018. That requires other permits. Some environmentalists want Dominion to take all its coal ash waste elsewhere to prevent any leaching, which has reportedly occurred. Meanwhile none of the Bremo coal ash ponds are lined, and only one pond is lined at Possum Point, Dominion said.
But while there is strong opposition to the approved permits and many want Dominion to take coal ash away from the waterways, there are residents in Quantico Creek that are more comfortable with the company’s plan.
“I actually think Dominion Virginia Power has been a pretty good neighbor,” said Eileen Thrall, a resident who’s lived less than half a mile away from the Possum Point plant for nearly 50 years. “To some extent, I believe we have to trust that what they do will be monitored by Virginia officials.”
Thrall, chairman of Friends of Quantico Bay, is also adamant about bringing material out of the plant, and by default, supportive of capping in place coal ash ponds near Quantico Creek. “This road is not equipped to handle that kind of truck traffic,” she said. “I will guarantee you this community will do everything it can to stop it.”
Opinions like Thrall’s point to a future divide and more back and forth discussion about what will happen with coal ash ponds that are known to hold toxic substances. That’s in part because the question as to what to do with 50 years of coal residue doesn’t have a clean cut answer for many stakeholders.
“Obviously I want it monitored,” said Thrall. “If they want to test whatever water we do have here that’s fine. But I think, I don’t know, I think maybe the state laws need to be more, but I don’t know.”