Decades of burning coal to power Virginia have left the state with a toxic, 30-million-ton problem — one that lawmakers must contend with when they gather in Richmond this month.
The disposal of mounds of coal ash stored underground near four Dominion Energy power plants has dogged the state for years. Now, at the urging of both environmental activists and Dominion, lawmakers appear bound to settle the question.
On the table is a hefty price tag to dig up and move the ash and unanswered questions about contamination resulting from the ponds if the ash is buried in place.
More than half of the coal ash is stored in two ponds in Chesterfield County, near a power plant that borders a recreation area along the James River. The other ash pond sites are at Bremo Bluff in Fluvanna County, a closed power plant site in Chesapeake and at Possum Point in Prince William County.
Environmental activists — who have long opposed Dominion’s plan to drain the water from the ponds and then cover the remaining ash — come into the General Assembly with the support of Gov. Ralph Northam, who last week backed a proposal to recycle some of the ash and move the rest into a modern landfill.
The legislation will be carried by Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, and Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Prince William, who represent residents near Possum Point. Sen. Rosalyn Dance, D-Petersburg, who represents residents near the Chesterfield power plant, has said she anticipates aligning with the governor on the issue. The bill has not yet been filed.
“I expect we’ll have a conversation during the session about how to address the cost of this,” Northam said Thursday. “But I know we must move this material away from areas where it can contaminate our water.”
Coal ash contamination
Research wells on Dominion property around three of the four ash pond sites have shown the ponds are leaking and contaminating nearby groundwater to levels that exceed federal or state standards. Whether the contamination impacts public waterways or poses a risk to public health remains unsettled.
In Chesterfield, data released by Dominion in November show high levels of arsenic, cobalt, lithium and radium in groundwater wells within Dominion property. At Possum Point, Dominion recorded high levels of cobalt and lithium, while at Bremo Bluff, it recorded high levels of lithium.
Dominion officials have argued that the groundwater within the property and downstream from it is not used as drinking water and therefore has no impact on public health, according to federally required disclosures and public statements.
As for contamination to public waterways around the ponds, Dominion’s environmental manager, Jason Williams, told lawmakers last month that the utility does not yet know the extent to which contaminated groundwater within wells on Dominion property has seeped outside of the property because the company hasn’t tested that far.
Williams said in an interview last month that Dominion plans to install additional wells to test the extent of groundwater contamination, but those results, coming in the spring, won’t be readily available as lawmakers begin to debate the closure of the ash ponds.
As for ash stored in Dominion’s Chesapeake Energy Center, a lawsuit that reached the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that arsenic from the ponds where the ash is stored leached into groundwater and ultimately wound up in the Elizabeth River. The appeals court acknowledged the leakage but found the contamination was not a violation of the federal Clean Water Act.
The James River Association and the Southern Environmental Law Center, meanwhile, also argue that in Chesterfield, leakage from the ponds has surfaced at Chesterfield’s Dutch Gap Conservation Area, a public park near the county’s two ash ponds.
The groups hired an outside consultant, Terra Technologies Environmental Services, to study samples collected from different areas of the park, and reported “elevated noncancer hazards and cancer risks for recreational visitors.”
Dominion officials have dismissed the groups’ methodology. Williams also said the utility is continually monitoring the wells and working to correct the excess contamination, work it would continue to do if lawmakers agreed to bury the ash in place.
Carroll Foy called the approach “not good enough.”
“They would basically cover it with a liner and dirt, and they promise to observe and take remedial measures,” she said in an interview. “We need to be proactive in the way we protect our environment.”
The cost of excavation
Whatever avenue state lawmakers settle on for the closure of the ponds, Dominion ratepayers from across the state will almost certainly bear the burden of the cost of the project equally — an issue with which lawmakers with constituents far removed from any coal ash will have to contend.
Dominion has estimated the cost of draining and covering the ponds at under $2 billion, and the cost of excavation and recycling at as much as $5.7 billion. State law allows the company to recover those funds from ratepayers.
Early estimates suggest the average household will pay an additional $3.30 per month over 20 years for the excavation of the ash, excluding any financing costs and return on equity that Dominion could legally claim.
Another significant cost lingering unaddressed is the impact of excavation on neighborhood roads and thoroughfares near the ash ponds.
Excavating the ash and transporting it elsewhere could attract heavy truck traffic to those areas. In Chesterfield, Dominion estimates removing the ash could require as many as 300 truckloads per day for 15 years. For a higher price tag, Dominion could use rail lines to lower the number of truckloads to 34 a day.
At a recent town hall in Chesterfield, residents raised concerns about the impact to their roads and quality of life. Dominion officials say estimates for the project do not include road maintenance and repair, leaving the cost of any wear and tear to the state or respective localities.
“There is an open-ended question about, how do you maintain the roads when there is heavy truck traffic?” said Bill Dupler, deputy administrator for Chesterfield. “We have a concern that our residents be able to drive on well-maintained roads.”
Surovell and Carroll Foy confirmed that the Water Quality and Safety Act does not include any provisions to address the cost of the project.
Surovell said in an interview that he is planning to introduce a separate bill that would “stretch out” the amount of time by which Dominion can recover the funds to as much as 25 years to lower the monthly impact to ratepayers.
To benefit localities, he said, the bill backed by Northam also includes a provision requiring Dominion to hire local labor at competitive wages, instead of allowing contractors to bring workers from out of state.
Still, he said, the cost to ratepayers is unavoidable but appropriate.
“I just think Virginians are willing to pay for clean water and clean rivers, and to do this right the first time,” Surovell said.