Bay Journal

Virginia governor proposes moratorium on coal ash permits

McAuliffe seeks amendment requiring Dominion to report on risks and alternatives first

  • By Whitney Pipkin on March 22, 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)

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe on Wednesday proposed a moratorium until 2018 on any new permits for coal ash disposal until a study is finished of its risks and possible alternatives.

McAuliffe announced that he was proposing amendments to a bill passed by the General Assembly that requires Dominion Virginia Power to study and report on the costs and benefits, risks and recycling options for coal ash now stored in drained lagoons at the company’s power plants.

Advocates concerned about the impact of permanent coal ash storage on such sites have urged the governor to restore the moratorium provision to a bill, sponsored by Sen. Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax) and Sen. Amanda Chase (R-Chesterfield). They were responding to constituents’ concerns about Dominion’s plans to permanently store ash at lagoon sites near the Potomac and James rivers.

While the bill as passed does require Dominion to release more information to the public by the end of the year, the House of Delegates removed the moratorium and instructed Dominion to provide a progress report rather than a final report of those factors. State regulators were expected to decide on the company’s request for a solid waste permit at its Possum Point power station on the Potomac River as early as June 10.

McAuliffe said in a statement that the Department of Environmental Quality is following the path of existing regulations in this process, but that “there has been tremendous public concern and outreach on this topic.”

He said his amendment to place a moratorium on permits regarding the closure of coal ash ponds “will provide the public with more information on the costs and benefits, risks and recycling options for coal ash before a final decision on the permits is reached.”

Surovell, whose district includes the Possum Point site, noted that the governor’s amendment would need to be approved by Virginia’s Senate and House of Delegates when they reconvene on April 5. But he said in a blog post that he was pleased that McAuliffe wanted to restore the original intent of the legislation.

“It is important that the public have complete information regarding the present scope of pollution and the cost of solutions before the Virginians and businesses that receive their electricity from Dominion are required to pay for these costs,” Surovell wrote.

McAuliffe's amendment will need a majority of votes in the Senate, which earlier passed Surovell's original bill with these measures intact, and at least 50 of the 100 votes in the House. Advocates are concerned that the House could try to remove some of the amendment's key measures again and are urging Dominion to support the bill so that more legislators might follow suit.

Environmental groups, public officials and dozens of residents who commented at public meetings have requested more time to understand the scope of what Dominion has proposed. The comment period closed on March 10 on the first solid waste permit the company is seeking to cap and permanently store in place 4 million tons of coal ash that had been deposited in lagoons at its Possum Point power station near Quantico Creek.

At a board meeting on March 7, Prince William County Board of Supervisors formally requested that the state delay its decision on the permit until alternatives to the storage plan could be more fully considered. The board also wrote a letter to the governor that asks the company to be required to wait for a third-party analysis of alternatives to burying the ash onsite in a clay-lined pit.

The alternatives others have suggested include transporting the ash by truck, rail or barge to a lined landfill or recycling it, most likely into concrete products, as the company does at other sites in the state. Dominion officials have said at public meetings that those other options would be too costly or take too long to be feasible.

Dominion spokesman Rob Richardson said via email that the company is working on a feasibility study of the other options and will continue to answer questions from those near to or concerned about coal ash storage.

“We have been consistent in saying that we are working to develop closure plans specifically designed for each site that are protective of the environment and fully compliant,” he wrote in an email.  

Surovell and Chase’s original bill created a one-year moratorium on the permitting of coal ash ponds and required Dominion to provide a public assessment of those alternatives, as well as the potential for water pollution or for the impoundments to be impacted by natural disasters.

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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