After a year’s worth of study dictated by Virginia lawmakers, Dominion Energy still thinks burying millions of tons of coal ash in nearly a dozen pits across the state is the best way to prevent it from polluting nearby rivers and streams.

Dominion drained the water from this coal ash storage lagoon at its Possum Point Power Station near Quantico. (Whitney Pipkin)

That’s the upshot of a presentation that the Richmond-based company made this week to the State Water Commission, a joint House-Senate legislative study committee.

Company representatives on Monday summarized an 800-page report prepared in response to legislation passed earlier this year, which required Dominion to examine the potential to recycle or move to landfills the coal ash now stored in drained lagoons at four of the company’s power plants in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

The state bill also required an evaluation of the long-term impact of storing the ash at each site, including risks associated with extreme weather and remediation options should the pits leach pollutants into groundwater or surface water. The ash, a byproduct of burning coal to generate power, is laden with heavy metals that could be harmful to aquatic life and human health.

Environmental groups have long opposed Dominion’s plans to keep the coal ash in mostly unlined pits near the Potomac, James and Elizabeth rivers. The Southern Environmental Law Center, which sued Dominion over leaks at one of the facilities, released its own report that challenges the company’s assumptions about the costs and timelines of alternatives.

In concert with the study ordered by the General Assembly, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe placed a moratorium on state regulators issuing any additional coal ash-related permits until May of 2018, while legislators consider new information from the company’s report.

But Sen. Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax) said he plans to present a bill early next year that would “facilitate the recycling of coal ash” into concrete and other products, as North Carolina legislators have required. Such a measure might also require the utility to re-examine the costs and risks associated with the company’s preferred cap-in-place approach, Surovell said. He likened that to “kicking the can down the road” and warned that costly cleanups could be required in the future if the pits leach contaminants into groundwater.

“The fact that [recycling of coal ash] is being done in other states demonstrates that it’s a feasible solution,” Surovell said. “It’s kind of hard to argue that it’s not going to work when everybody’s doing it.”

Utilities in the Carolinas, Tennessee and Georgia are in the process of recycling about 90 million tons of coal ash into concrete and other products, in some cases because state lawmakers have required them to do so.

Dominion estimates that some of the alternatives to storing the coal ash in place could take up to 50 years to complete, stretching beyond the deadline imposed by federal regulators for closing out former storage lagoons or ponds. According to the report compiled for the company by contractor AECOM, the highest-cost option of excavating the ash at each of the four sites, then moving it to a lined landfill, would cost nearly $8 billion.

The environmental law center, in response, countered that based on data from other states, Dominion’s report “appears to drastically overstate the time and cost associated with removing the ash.”  

Dominion Energy power plants with ash storage lagoons (Dominion Energy)But Dominion officials say the best solutions are site-specific and that the sheer size of the pits at most of its Virginia facilities make removal exceedingly costly. For three of its four sites with coal ash pits, Dominion’s report found that “closure in place” presents the lowest risk at the lowest cost, Pamela Faggert, Dominion’s chief environmental officer, told the commission. Company officials cited the risks associated with transporting coal ash by truck, in some cases on narrow roads near waterways, all day every day for years.

Josh Bennett, vice president of power generation at Dominion, said that 80 percent of the ash ponds in the United States larger than 20 acres are being closed in place, a size category that includes the vast pits at the utility’s Bremo, Chesterfield and Possum Point power stations. The pits Dominion is closing at all of its facilities contain an estimated 25 million cubic yards of ash, enough to fill 8,400 Olympic swimming pools.

Dominion already has committed to excavating and recycling the ash from the smallest pit at Chesapeake Energy Center. That one covers five acres, while the company’s other ash stockpiles encompass more than 100 acres — and, in the case of the Chesterfield plant, more than 200 acres.

The company already recycles 700,000 tons of coal-combustion byproducts annually, which    is generated by the coal-fired power plants still in operation. Dominion officials contend that the freshly generated ash is less expensive to recycle because it is easier to process than the soggy “legacy” ash that has been stored for years in lagoons that are in the process of being drained. 

Faggert assured the lawmakers that every option proposed by the company for handling the ash “is protective of human health, the environment and is safe.”

But Del. R. Lee Ware Jr. (R-Powhatan) called that assertion “a breathtaking statement” and asked Faggert whether she could cite pages in the report that would verify it.

“I can tell you that if the options weren’t feasible and protective, they were not presented,” Faggert responded.

Del. David L. Bulova (D-Fairfax) asked whether the cost estimates for the cap-in-place option at each site, which was the least expensive for all but the Chesapeake Energy Center, included the cost of potential remediation if the pits leach contaminants over time.

“You may be referring to subsequent groundwater remediation,” Faggert said. “We included the cost, but we don’t know exactly what the remediation requirements would be, so we have a range of potential costs.”

A federal judge ruled in March that Dominion’s storage of coal ash at the now-closed Chesapeake Energy Center on the Elizabeth River has been polluting groundwater and the river for years. The judge ordered the company and its opponent on the case, the environmental law center, to each suggest remediation options.

Dominion’s full report and a summary of it are available at DominionEnergy.com/coalash. The study commissioned by the SELC can be viewed here.

Read more about coal ash recycling options here