Allegations of dubious practices are mounting against a Virginia state agency that last month approved the disposal of millions of gallons of partially-treated coal ash water in two Virginia Rivers. This time, however, harsh comments are not coming from environmentalists alone.
Just days after Dominion Virginia Power, a utility company, confirmed it released 33.7 million gallons of coal ash water into a tributary of the Potomac River last spring, county officials say they distrust the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality and the company alike.
“They did not let the public know they were going to do that. They did not let the county know they were going to do that. And it just looks very, very, shady,” said Corey Stewart, chairman of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors, in an interview with ThinkProgress.
Last month, the Virginia Water Control Board gave Dominion the permits it needed to start closing some of its coal ash ponds. That entails draining the less-polluted top water from coal ash ponds at the Possum Point power plant, located by Quantico Creek, and the Bremo power plant, located by the James River. That plan and the newly awarded permits have been questioned, however, because the wastewater would be only partially treated before it’s flushed into Quantico Creek and the James River.
“We are very, very concerned about the release of these toxins into Quantico Creek,” said Stewart, one of many in the community who fear excessive levels of harmful chemicals are being allowed in waterways rich with wildlife.
But while critics were before concerned about the stringency of permits, in the Town of Dumfries those concerns have turned into anger following news reports saying Dominion released untreated coal ash water several months before it received the new controversial permits. Both Dominion and DEQ have not been forthcoming with clear answers, environmentalists and county officials say.
The amount of coal ash water Dominion released last year was first reported by Inside Nova Monday. The DEQ at the time said it was reviewing whether it knew Dominion drained one of the ponds last May, and whether that action complied with the utility’s existing discharge permit.
Coal ash is the byproduct of burning coal for energy and contains hazardous chemicals like arsenic, lead, and mercury. For decades energy companies dumped it into ditches, which they filled with water. These coal ash ponds went federally unregulated until 2014, and since then, companies like Dominion have been closing their coal ash ponds.
The DEQ has now told ThinkProgress that past discharges into Quantico Creek from a pond at Dominion’s Possum Point power plant were lawful. Yet when presented with that claim, environmental advocates and county officials express disbelief. “That is what they said but we don’t believe them at this point,” Supervisor Stewart said. “We feel that Dominion has lied to us. We feel that DEQ is covering up for them.”
The DEQ told ThinkProgress on Thursday that Dominion had a permit allowing last year’s release of coal ash water. Asked if this permit called for this water to be treated similarly to the most recent permit, the DEQ said via email that “the previous permit did not require extra treatment.”
Dominion did not reply to questions by press time. Company officials have told ThinkProgress that Dominion recently consolidated four coal ash ponds at the Possum Point power plant into one pond they call pond D, as the company obtains the permits needed for capping it in place. Company officials did not say however, that this process included the release of coal ash polluted water from one of these ponds into the creek, as environmentalists say they were told.
“We were assured by the state that the water had been moved between ponds, not drained into the creek,” said Greg Buppert, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center. “We know now that wasn’t the case.”
This isn’t the first time that Dominion has been under the spotlight for alleged water contamination of Virginia rivers. Last year, a U.S. district court in Virginia denied Dominion’s attempt to dismiss a SELC lawsuit claiming the company contaminated the southern branch of the Elizabeth River with coal ash waste from its Chesapeake Energy Center plant. That litigation is ongoing. Buppert, whose organization represents the Potomac Riverkeeper and the James River Association, said Dominion’s permit should be nullified based on last year’s discharge. “We think it’s a serious issue that warrants revocation of the current permit,” he said. “A fundamental assumption about what was happening at the site has proved incorrect. The information didn’t come to light until after the new permit was issued.”
SELC has notified the DEQ it will be appealing the permits in court claiming violations of the federal Clean Water Act, Buppert said. Meanwhile, Prince William County decided to appeal the permit, too, Stewart said. The board decided to challenge the permit even though DEQ representatives went to speak before supervisors Tuesday.
“The only thing that they could tell us was that Dominion had met the environmental regulations,” said Stewart. “They wouldn’t say that it was safe, they wouldn’t say that there was nothing to be worried about, and as a result, we remain extremely concerned.”
Possum Point has 244 million gallons of coal wash water in pond D, according to figures provided by Dominion. It’s unclear when the company will start discharging water from Possum Point — or the Bremo power plant — under the new permit, but Dominion has said the process will likely start in less than a year.