After months of contentious debate, a state regulatory board will decide this week whether to allow Dominion Virginia Power to divert water from coal-ash ponds into a nearby creek after treating that water to remove pollutants.
The battle pits environmentalists and local elected officials — both Democrats and Republicans — against a politically powerful utility company that, critics say, has won too much leniency from the state.
Advocates fighting Dominion’s proposal last year exposed the existence of a drain near the largest coal-ash pond at the Possum Point Power Plant in Prince William County, which environmentalists say has been discharging contaminated, untreated water into Quantico Creek.
Dominion says the drain is to divert storm and groundwater from the coal-ash pond, but activists with the Potomac Riverkeepers Network say they tested the water in July and found high concentrations of arsenic, selenium and other pollutants that are common in coal ash.
The advocates are calling for a federal investigation into the possibility of illegal dumping. They argue that the state should be more stringent in its proposed conditions for the permit, which would allow Dominion to discard 215 million gallons of treated coal-ash water into the creek that links to the Potomac River.
Dominion’s critics have persuaded the Department of Environmental Quality to alter the permit so it limits the rate at which the utility can get rid of the treated coal-ash water. But the agency refused to make sealing the open drain or treating the water that flows from there a condition of the permit.
“The state, through this permit, is shielding Dominion from enforcement actions that should be taken,” said Dean Naujoks, an environmentalist with the Potomac Riverkeepers. “It’s like they’re giving them a free pass.”
Dominion, which stopped burning coal to provide electricity at Possum Point in 2003, wants to drain water from the coal-ash ponds and permanently seal the remaining toxic residue at Possum Point and its three other industrial sites in Virginia. The effort, part of an Environmental Protection Agency mandate to safely dispose of all forms of coal ash nationwide, would cost about $325 million.
The permit to channel water into Quantico Creek, which is the issue before the Water Control Board on Thursday, is just one step in the process at Possum Point. When the water is gone, Dominion would need another state permit to cover the remaining sediment with layers of protective lining, soil and vegetation.
“We want to be very proactive and get the ash ponds at our facilities closed as soon as possible,” said Pamela Faggert, Dominion’s chief environmental officer and vice president of corporate compliance. “We’re working with regulators to determine what the appropriate method would be.”
While Dominion officials called the water-handling permit requirements “strict,” critics point out that the level of arsenic contaminants allowed by Virginia law is 15 times higher than what is allowed in neighboring North Carolina.
The limits in that state were tightened after a storm-water pipe beneath a Duke Energy Carolina coal-ash pond burst, dumping massive amounts of coal ash and contaminated water into the Dan River. The spill led to a $2.5 million payment from Duke Energy to Virginia, where the Dan River joins the Roanoke River.
“The level of treatment required for Duke Energy to dewater its coal-ash ponds is significantly better and more protective of public health and the environment than what Dominion is being required to do, and that doesn’t make a lot of sense to us,” Naujoks said.
Department of Environmental Quality spokesman William Hayden said the treatment standards outlined in the permit being sought by Dominion “meet the Virginia water quality standards, which we believe fully protect people and the environment.”
Quantico Creek is home to colonies of bass, catfish and eel. State health officials issued an advisory against consumption of fish from the tributary in 1999 because of contamination. That advisory remains in effect. Several groups that monitor the ecosphere along the Potomac said that allowing more industrial water into the tributary could have far-reaching consequences.
The Maryland Department of Natural Resources, which safeguards the health of wildlife along the Potomac watershed, “has major concerns” about Dominion’s proposal and is preparing a letter of protest to Virginia officials, agency spokesman Stephen Schatz said.
The Potomac River Fisheries Commission, which regulates commercial fishing in the region, called the idea of adding more industrial water to the creek “a risk to human health.”
“Why wouldn’t we look for an alternative method?” said Martin L. Gary, executive director of the commission. The area where the water would be discharged, he said, is too close to the part of the Potomac that is home to colonies of blue catfish that increasingly are being caught and sold to markets and restaurants.
In response to the public concerns, state environmental officials inspected the area near the drain in November and acknowledged the possibility that a rupture in the pond lining is allowing coal-ash water to seep through the drain. As a result, the agency revised the permit application to require Dominion to monitor the drain discharge for contamination at least once a month.
“We can collect data and see what’s going on there and see if anything additional needs to be done,” Hayden said.
Some critics have accused the agency of being too easy on Dominion, noting that the company wields considerable influence in Richmond. Last year, Dominion contributed about $643,000 to political campaigns in Virginia, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.
“There are serious public health concerns, serious potential pollution of the Potomac River, and no one at the state level is doing anything about it,” said Corey A. Stewart (R), chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors.
He said the county would consider suing Dominion if the permit is approved.
Those who oppose the utility’s plans are also gearing up for a fight over how the ponds’ contaminated sediment will be handled once the water is gone.
State Sen.-elect Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax) said he plans to introduce legislation this week to mandate that all coal-ash ponds in Virginia be excavated, and the sediment carted away to a landfill — an option Dominion says would be more dangerous and expensive than what it is proposing.
“We can’t just close our eyes and cross our fingers and hope it doesn’t become a multibillion-dollar Superfund site in the future,” Surovell said. “I want to get this stuff as far away from the river as possible.”
Correction: Earlier versions of this story incorrectly said that Dominion Virginia Power stopped burning coal to provide electricity in 2003. The utility stopped burning coal at Possum Point Power Plant at that time, but still burns coal at other facilities. The story has been corrected.