Virginia lawmakers act on Alexandria sewage overflows, coal ash
Virginia’s General Assembly took final action on two measures that could impact water quality in the Chesapeake Bay during a one-day veto session on Wednesday.
In response to several amendments Gov. Terry McAuliffe proposed to bills passed earlier this year, Virginia lawmakers refused to give the city of Alexandria more time to reduce polluted overflows from its sewer system and agreed to a moratorium on new coal ash-related permits until further study can be conducted.
After rejecting McAuliffe’s proposed amendments to give the city of Alexandria three additional years to reduce overflows from a combined sewer system, Virginia senators voted to pass the bill as originally written, potentially giving the city a compliance deadline of 2025. But the measure did not get enough votes in the Senate to pass it over a potential gubernatorial veto.
That bill — which set a project completion date that Alexandria’s engineers have said they cannot meet — will go back to the governor now for him to either sign or veto within 30 days. If no action is taken, it will become law.
“We regret the legislature’s insistence on deadlines that engineers have determined are unreasonable,” Alexandria Mayor Allison Silberberg said in a statement, asking the governor to veto it. “We are fully committed to working with all deliberate speed to getting all four outfalls in Alexandria done, and to getting them done right.”
The Northern Virginia city has been working since the mid-1990s to reduce the amount of rain-diluted waste that pours untreated from its antiquated combined sewer system, but environmentalists have complained that local officials weren’t moving fast enough. Last year, the city agreed to begin building storage and treatment facilities to curtail overflows from three of four outfalls where they currently occur. With the approval of state environmental regulators, the city planned to leave the largest outfall — which spews nearly 70 million gallons of sewage-tainted stormwater annually into the river’s Oronoco Bay — untouched for the next 20 years.
State lawmakers got involved this year, adding a timeline that Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality has not required of any of the three cities with similar overflow problems. Arguments in the General Assembly hinged on a view of Alexandria as a wealthy municipality that can afford to fix the problem more quickly than the state is requiring. But environmental groups also have supported the quicker timeline.
Potomac Riverkeeper Dean Naujoks issued an email alert Thursday asking the governor not to veto the measure and urging supporters do the same. The environmental group says an independent engineer’s analysis indicates that the city could complete the work to curtail raw sewage overflows in the next eight years.
“Will self-proclaimed ‘Save the Bay’ Gov. Terry McAuliffe veto a bill that would eliminate massive sewage dumping to the polluted Chesapeake Bay?” Naujoks questioned in the email.
But Naujoks — and the General Assembly — did support the governor’s amendment on another hot-button bill that could have water quality implications for more than one river in the state.
Lawmakers on Wednesday approved the governor’s amendment to place a moratorium on any new permits for coal ash disposal in Virginia until 2018. That will officially pause a pending permit for a facility seeking approval to store 4 million tons of coal ash at a site near the Potomac River. A decision was expected on that permit as early as June.
Dominion, the Richmond-based energy company, is seeking state approval to cap and store coal ash left in a drained impoundment at its Possum Point power station. The company’s CEO notified McAuliffe earlier this week that he supported the delay called for in the governor’s amendment to the bill.
The bill that passed the General Assembly had removed such a moratorium, but left in requirements that Dominion study and report to the public by the end of the year the costs, benefits and risks associated with alternatives to storing coal ash in drained lagoons at power plants in the state.
Dominion CEO Thomas Farrell II wrote that, regardless of what lawmakers did with McAuliffe’s amendment, the company would ask to put on hold its quest for permits to close ash impoundments at four locations around the state until further study of the alternatives can be completed, most likely by the end of the year.
“We concur that it is a prudent course of action to seek and consider an evaluation of the assessments on the appropriate closure methods based on the individual features of each site before seeking necessary solid waste permits,” Farrell wrote in the letter. “The assessments will help to ensure the long-term protection of public health, the environment and the safety of the individual CCR (coal combustion residual) units.”
Dominion already is heading back to the drawing board to consider alternatives to permanent, on-site coal ash storage in one location after a federal judge declared last month that one of its coal ash pits near the Elizabeth River has been contaminating nearby groundwater.
U.S. District Court Judge John Gibney Jr. did not immediately require Dominion to excavate the pits he ruled had been leaking. Rather, he is requiring Dominion to perform additional testing and has asked the company to work with the other party in the suit — the Sierra Club, represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center — to outline their preferred remediation plans by later this month.
Advocates for a more transparent process for coal ash disposal cheered the decisions on both fronts, which should give the public additional opportunities to learn about the long-term implications of coal ash storage or recycling.
“Safely managing (coal ash) is critical to protecting public health and our water resources,” Naujoks wrote in a statement about the coal ash moratorium being upheld. “We thank the governor for his leadership on this important issue.”
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