Settlement Gives Utility The Go-Ahead To Dump Coal Ash Wastewater Into Virginia Rivers

CREDIT: AP Photo/Steve Helber

Trucks haul coal ash from one retention pond to a permanent pond at the Dominion Power's Possum Point Power Station in Dumfries, Va., Friday, June 26, 2015.

A utility company that will legally dispose of coal ash water in two Virginia waterways agreed Wednesday to treat waste going into the James River to a more stringent standard than the state required, though legal appeals to the controversial plan remain.

The settlement agreement between Dominion Virginia Power and the James River Association comes a day after the company reached a similar deal with Prince William County regarding Quantico Creek, a tributary of the Potomac River located within its borders. Quantico Creek and James River will start receiving discharges as early as April.

Two months ago, the Virginia Water Control Board issued permits allowing Dominion to drain coal ash water into Quantico Creek and the James River in southeastern Virginia, as Dominion follows an EPA mandate to close its coal ash ponds. That entails treating and draining the less-polluted top water from coal ash ponds at the Possum Point power plant by Quantico Creek, and the Bremo Bluff power plant by the James River. In total, Dominion will close 11 coal ash ponds across the state.

But Dominion’s plan for the Possum Point and Bremo Bluff ponds were questioned from the get-go. Just on Monday, 17 college students protesting the plan were arrested in Richmond. Critics have long said the permits were lax and didn’t take advantage of best available technology to keep the river safe enough from pollutants. For their part, Dominion and the DEQ said the permits were stringent and protective.

Still, environmentalists, Prince William County, and Maryland filed separate appeals to the permits last month. Yet now only two parties, Maryland and the Potomac Riverkeeper, have pending appeals. Both are related to Quantico Creek.

“At this point, we are continuing our review of the contested permit,” said Maryland Secretary of the Environment Ben Grumbles in a statement to ThinkProgress. Grumbles noted, however, that the settlement “is progress for protecting the Potomac River.”

Corey Stewart, chairman of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors, said residents should be confident that everything that reaches Quantico Creek will meet standards 57 percent better than the original permit. “And they are going to do hourly testing to make sure that it is,” Stewart told ThinkProgress, adding the company will “share all of their data with the county so we can help oversee it.”

“They’ve done everything we’ve asked them to do,” he said.

But while governments warm up to Dominion’s plan, the Potomac Riverkeeper Network is determined to fight it. “Our rivers deserve the same level of protection that North Carolina rivers are receiving from coal ash,” Potomac Riverkeeper Dean Naujoks told ThinkProgress. “There is just no way we can compromise on the Potomac River.”

Environmentalists have noted that similar permits in North Carolina, which suffered a massive coal ash spill in 2014, are much more stringent and point to the industry’s capacity to do better. The DEQ’s original permits for draining the coal ash ponds set arsenic levels higher than 150 milligrams per liter, the EPA’s arsenic limit to protect aquatic life.

The DEQ is reviewing Dominion’s voluntary standards, the agency confirmed Wednesday. Dominion, which is building the treatment plants, will start draining after DEQ gives its blessing.

“The agreement with Prince William County confirms that the discharge permit issued by the DEQ fully protects water quality, aquatic life and human health,” William Hayden, the DEQ’s public information officer, told ThinkProgress via email.

And yet, the notion that community organizations and government agencies twisted Dominion’s arm into doing more is a black eye for the DEQ, which long said it didn’t have the authority to force Dominion to use the best available technology. “We said in our comments, this water can be treated more effectively and it can be achieved, with routine and regularly available treatment technology,” Greg Buppert, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, told ThinkProgress. “Now we know that’s the case.”