Bay Journal

Northern Virginia county wants alternatives to coal ash storage fully considered

Prince William board asks governor, Dominion to look at removal, recycling of power plant waste

  • By Whitney Pipkin on March 10, 2017
Dominion Virginia Power drained this coal ash storage lagoon last year and is now seeking a state permit to 'cap' the ash in the bottom. (Dave Harp)

Northern Virginia elected officials have called on Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Dominion Virginia Power to stall the utility’s plans to store millions of tons of coal ash by a Potomac River tributary until other options are studied further.

The Prince William County Board of Supervisors voted to seek a delay in Dominion’s controversial plan after a public meeting Tuesday, where it quizzed Dominion officials and heard from more than a dozen concerned residents.

Environmental groups are pressing the Prince William board to do what it can to stop pending state approval of Dominion’s plans to cap and seal in place 4 million tons of ash that had been deposited in lagoons near Quantico Creek and the Potomac River. The ash, which contains a variety of pollutants, is a byproduct of decades of burning coal to generate electricity at the company’s Possum Point power station.

“Where does an 800-pound gorilla get to sit?” Supervisor Frank Principi, D-Woodbridge, said during the board meeting. “Wherever it wants. In this situation, I feel like Dominion is the 800-pound gorilla and has decided to sit on the cap-in-place solution.”

The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality is accepting public comments through Friday (3/10) on whether to issue Dominion a solid waste permit for its plans to store the ash on site. A decision is expected in June.

Prince William officials have tried before, with limited success, to influence Dominion’s plans for dealing with the coal ash at Possum Point. County officials asked the DEQ last year to hold off granting the company a permit to drain an ash storage lagoon. State regulators denied that request, so the county sued – and only withdrew the legal challenge after Dominion agreed to treat the lagoon water more thoroughly than the state required before discharging it into the creek.

The board’s letter to the governor this week also asks that the company be required to wait for a third-party analysis of alternatives to its plan for burying the ash onsite in a clay-lined pit. McAuliffe is reviewing a bill passed by the General Assembly that requires Dominion to perform such an analysis. But before passing the bill, cosponsored by Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, lawmakers removed a provision requiring the study of alternatives to be completed before any permit is issued. Surovell and the county have asked the governor to consider restoring that requirement before signing it into law, so the public can have more information.

More than 150 people crowded into a high school cafeteria in the county last month for a hearing on the proposed permit, to which dozens spoke in opposition.

Principi asked Dominion officials at the county meeting on Tuesday if they would be willing to consider a third-party objective analysis of alternative methods for dealing with the facility’s coal ash before going ahead with their preferred “cap-in-place” option. Cathy Taylor, Dominion’s senior environmental and sustainability adviser, said she would have to “go back and ask” other company officials, but she noted that the bill passed last month already requires the company to do as much by the end of the year.

But Dominion could have the permit to begin closing the impoundment at Possum Point long before then, and the company is likely to pursue solid waste permits to begin similar closures at two other coal-ash storage sites in the Bay watershed.

Principi and another board member, Maureen Caddigan, R-Potomac, peppered a pair of Dominion officials with questions about alternatives that do not involve storing the coal ash onsite, where at least one now-closed lagoon has leaked contaminants into the groundwater. Those alternatives include transporting the ash by truck, rail or barge to a lined landfill, or recycling the ash — most likely into concrete products, as the company does at other sites in the state.

Caddigan sided with a few residents who live near the station in opposing the idea of trucking coal ash from the site via narrow Possum Point Road.  That would likely involve 100 truck trips per day, six days a week and take more than a decade to complete, said Jason Williams, an environmental manager for Dominion.

Though there are rail lines leading to and from the plant, Williams said removing the ash by rail car would require trucking it to the existing spurs or building new ones, an option that would take more time and cost more than trucking. Moving the ash by barge on the Potomac River would require four to five years to build a new dock, and would require the ash to be transported in closed shipping containers to keep it from getting into the water. 

Dominion officials have said that recycling the ash into concrete products is not the best option because the pit contains both two different types of ash as well as dirt that would need to be sifted out. Though the company recycles ash generated by some of its other plants, Williams said doing so at this site would entail building a dedicated recycling facility at the plant; he also questioned whether there would be sufficient demand for concrete to warrant recycling that much ash.

Environmental groups point out that utilities in North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia have been recycling ash, in some cases from legacy ash pits like the one at Possum Point.

Jimmy Knowles, a vice president for the South Carolina-based SEFA Group, a company that recycles coal ash, said during an interview Thursday that the technology exists to turn legacy ash from the Virginia plant into usable material for concrete products. But Knowles said it also would likely cost more than the company’s preferred cap-in-place option.

“They’re accurate in saying, ‘You can’t just dig this stuff up and put it in concrete.’ In order to make it work, you would have to have somebody like us build a plant like our plant, and it is an extra cost,” Knowles said. “If you can cap in place and there is no environmental liability to not cap in place, that’s always the lowest cost option.”

If regulations did require companies in Virginia to recycle ash, Knowles said there would almost certainly be a market demand for the product. The state’s concrete-supply companies currently import one type of ash from other states and from overseas, he said, and one industry study found concrete producers would rather purchase those materials from utilities in the state.

Williams said Dominion has assessed all of the likely alternatives to storing the ash in place and that many of them, including recycling, would extend the timeline of removing or containing ash years into the future, not to mention increasing the cost of compliance.

Dominion is one of many power companies in the country pushing to close their ash impoundments, which have been used for decades to store the remnants of burning coal for power. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ruled in 2015 that companies that ceased storing ash in pits by 2018 would not have to comply with stricter regulations being imposed on the practice. New pits must be constructed with a synthetic liner to prevent leaks, for example, while the pit at Dominion’s Possum Point facility was lined only with a layer of compressed clay when it was built in 1988.

Principi mentioned an email, obtained by the Potomac Riverkeeper Network via a public records request, in which state regulators expressed concerns about the adequacy of the liner at the Possum Point impoundment to prevent groundwater contamination. The Dominion spokesman said the lagoon’s liner is sufficient.

“That liner was engineered to be installed correctly, and the groundwater data hasn’t shown contamination,” Williams said.

But Principi said that many citizens are concerned there have already been leaks from ash storage lagoons at the site — and he asked Williams publicly whether the company knew of any. Williams said one of the ponds that was recently excavated of its ash and closed leaked contaminants into nearby groundwater in 2000. The state required Dominion to monitor the surrounding area with additional wells, and Williams said the company confirmed that the leak did not go any farther than the monitoring well where it was originally detected. No other remediation was required, he said.

If the clay-lined impoundment where all of Possum Point’s ash has been consolidated does leak, Williams said, options for dealing with it include installing an impermeable underground wall or other ground-water barrier, or pumping and treating the groundwater that is affected.

“You would have to engineer something site-specific,” Williams said.

About Whitney Pipkin
Whitney Pipkin writes at the intersection of food, agriculture and the environment from her home base in Northern Virginia. Her work for the Bay Journal often focuses on the Potomac and Anacostia rivers, and she is a fellow of the Institute for Journalism & Natural Resources. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).
Read more articles by Whitney Pipkin

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