It may seem as if Dominion Power’s controversial plan to dispose of toxic coal ash along the banks of the Potomac River is a settled matter. For Brian West, who lives 700 feet from Dominion’s Possum Point coal ash ponds in Northern Virginia, the fight over Dominion’s “cap-in-place” plan is just beginning.
The same laboratory at Virginia Tech that analyzed the water in many Flint, Mich., homes also looked at West’s drinking water. The results? West’s water showed lead levels between four and 10 times the Environmental Protection Agency’s “action level” for lead. Samples collected from West’s drinking water and some of his neighbors’ wells have revealed hexavalent chromium, arsenic, cobalt, aluminum, barium, copper, magnesium, manganese, nickel, zinc, vanadium, boron and strontium — many of which are carcinogenic, and all of which are found in coal ash. West and many of his neighbors believe millions of tons of toxic coal ash Dominion stored next to his property in unlined pits for the last few decades have contaminated their drinking wells.
They have good reason to worry: Last year, North Carolina health officials tested 360 drinking wells near Duke Energy coal ash ponds, and 330 exceeded standards for one or more contaminants. Twenty-one wells had elevated hexavalent chromium levels. Ninety wells had elevated levels of hexavalent chromium and vanadium, chemicals linked to blood problems, cancer and neurological effects.
Dominion, which is being investigated by the EPA for dumping 27.5 million gallons of coal ash wastewater into a creek, says there’s no connection between its coal-ash stockpiles and contaminated groundwater affecting drinking wells. Yet for 30 years, Dominion has documented extensive groundwater contamination from its own groundwater monitoring wells located at Possum Point.
Contaminated groundwater is discharging to the river according to Dominion’s own report: “The primary environmental receptor for groundwater associated with Ash Pond D and Ash Pond E is Quantico Creek. . . . Groundwater flows south from the site toward Quantico Creek where it discharges into the creek.”
Despite an outcry from state lawmakers, landowners, commercial fisherman and downstream communities along multiple affected Virginia rivers – the Potomac, James, New and Elizabeth – Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) has agreed to let Dominion dump treated coal ash waste water into public waterways. The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality has issued permits to treat and discharge hundreds of millions of gallons of contaminated ash water to levels far weaker than permits issued in North Carolina to Duke Energy for the same purpose.
McAuliffe and VDEQ support Dominion’s proposed “cap in place” plan to seal the remaining millions of tons of toxic coal ash where it sits without modern synthetic liners. Not surprisingly, VDEQ supports Dominion’s plan to allow metals to continue to leak into public water ways and threaten drinking wells.
A recent study by Duke University revealed that the cap-in-place approach accelerates leakage of certain ash contaminants, including arsenic, into surrounding groundwater. North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia mandate “clean closure,” which requires ash to be stored in modern landfills with synthetic liners located away from rivers and drinking-water supplies. South Carolina utility Santee Cooper calls the clean-closure plan a “win, win, win” for the local environment, the economy and the utility.
These measures were taken to protect public health. McAuliffe owes it to the people of Virginia to do the same. Citizens such as West have been organizing across the state in anticipation of upcoming public hearings on Dominion’s draft solid waste permit. A July 23 “March on the Mansion” will take the issue directly to the governor.
McAuliffe has a choice: He can follow the lead of our Southern neighbors and regulate the disposal of coal ash in a way that recognizes sound science and protects our rivers and drinking-water supplies or he can compromise drinking water for future generations in favor of a well-connected industry such as Dominion.
Dean Naujoks is the Potomac riverkeeper with the Potomac Riverkeeper Network.