Dominion Virginia Power agreed this week to adopt stricter standards than Virginia requires for treating coal-related wastewater before it is dumped into local waterways, bowing to pressure from environmentalists and local officials.
The settlement comes after activists and others challenged the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality's (DEQ) approval of permits for Dominion to treat and dispose of wastewater from open-air ponds containing coal ash, a byproduct of burning coal, at its Bremo and Possum Point power stations.
Those activists, along with politicians and environmental experts, have raised objections to the company's treatment-and-disposal plan, arguing that Virginia requires coal ash wastewater to go through far less thorough cleaning than neighboring North Carolina does. For example, Dominion's permit for Bremo Power Station set the company's maximum threshold for arsenic, a known carcinogen, at 530 parts per billion; Duke Energy's Riverbed Steam Station permit, issued by North Carolina regulators, has an arsenic threshold of 72 parts per billion.
On Monday, 35 frustrated college students occupied the lobby of the DEQ building in Richmond. After several hours, police cited the 17 activists who still remained for trespassing.
The gap between North Carolina and Virginia standards is expected to narrow under the new agreements. Environmentalists at the James River Association negotiated on March 7 with Dominion to update Bremo's disposal plan; the next day, officials from Prince William County, Va., held parallel discussions with Dominion to revise Possum Point's disposal process.
"The water will be a lot cleaner once it leaves Bremo Bluff than it would have been if nobody had challenged the permit," said spokesman Mike Mather of the Southern Environmental Law Center. The group represented the James River Association in the settlement.
"Both agreements highlight the commitment that [the James River Association] and Prince William County, respectively, hold for protecting the quality of their rivers. Dominion shares that commitment," Dominion spokesman Dan Genest wrote in an email to InsideClimate News.
Virginia environmental regulators praised the deal, and specifically commended Dominion for voluntarily going beyond state and federal statutes, according to DEQ spokesman William Hayden.
Some of the Dominion ponds targeted in the permits are decades old. Seven of the eight are unlined, meaning the waste has likely leached into the surrounding soil and groundwater. As part of the pond closure process, more than 480 million gallons of waste will be treated and dumped into local waterways. Waste from Possum Point will go into Quantico Creek, which empties directly into the Potomac River. Bremo's waste will dump into the James River, 130 miles upstream from where the river connects with the Chesapeake Bay. Dominion has not yet received permits for handling the sludge left at the bottom of these ponds once all the water is removed.
Under both settlements, Dominion has agreed to use equipment that will absorb more heavy metals out of the wastewater.
With the James River Association, Dominion will also conduct fish tissue studies around Bremo to ensure the waste treatment is working to protect fish. According to the deal with Prince William County, Dominion will provide $50,000 for the county to hire independent consultants to review the Possum Point permit.
Doubts Persist Despite Settlement
Many opponents of Dominion's plan, however, say the fight is not over. Maryland's Department of the Environment and Department of Natural Resources, along with the state attorney general's office, announced in February their intention to appeal Dominion's Possum Point permit. Responding to the Prince William County settlement, Maryland officials told InsideClimate News they would review the agreement but that they are still planning to appeal.
Maryland regulators are targeting Possum Point because it is located only a couple hundred feet from the Virginia-Maryland border along the Potomac River. That means its waste disposal will affect both states.
Members at the grassroots environmental group Potomac Riverkeeper Network filed an appeal of the Possum Point permit on Feb. 26.
"The multiple appeals from environmentalists, and state and local governments, forced Dominion to come to the table. That by itself speaks volumes about the DEQ lax permit," Dean Naujoks from Potomac Riverkeeper Network said in a statement on Wednesday. Naujoks said his group, however, would continue its appeal, pushing the company to embrace even stricter disposal standards.
Dominion has also come under fire recently for releasing 27.5 million gallons of untreated coal ash wastewater from Possum Point into Quantico Creek last year; the company admitted in January that it had happened, but said the disposal was allowed under the company's old permit. Environmentalists aren't convinced. The Potomac Riverkeeper Network has alerted the Environmental Protection Agency's Criminal Investigative Division of the incident; the agency has not yet said publicly if it will open an investigation.
Prince William County resident Paul Simpson said he doubts Dominion's commitment to the recent agreement. "[They] just don't have my trust and I don't think they have many people's trust," he told InsideClimate News. Simpson farms oysters in Virginia and dreams of making it a full-time job. He's concerned about how the waste could harm aquatic life. Prince William is the second largest county in the state, with about 440,000 people.
In the wake of a devastating 2014 spill in North Carolina, where 82,000 tons of coal ash from Duke Energy-owned ponds emptied and contaminated the Dan River, the EPA enacted new standards for handling such waste. To prompt companies to clean up their so-called "inactive" ponds, such as those owned by Dominion, by April 2018, the rules waive the extensive post clean-up groundwater monitoring that's required for the remediation of active ponds for companies that meet that deadline.
Dominion and North Carolina's Duke Energy are some of the first companies to start the decommissioning process. Duke has already started treating and dumping its waste. Dominion could start as early as April.
At least 66 facilities in 23 states have announced their intention to close a total of 99 ponds by the 2018 deadline, according to research by the environmental law group Earthjustice. As more states consider permits on coal pond closures, they may look to Virginia for guidance, Lisa Evans, a lawyer at Earthjustice, wrote in an email to InsideClimate News.
"While the Virginia permits do not set a legal precedent that must be followed, coal plants in other states seeking to empty ash ponds into their local rivers can surely turn to Virginia and say such dumping was accepted there—why not here? It's a slippery, and toxic, slope."