The Virginia State Water Control Board approved Thursday Dominion Virginia Power’s permits to drain defunct coal ash ponds into nearby waterways at two sites in the state. The Possum Point power station is near Quantico and will be drained into a tributary of the Potomac River and the Bremo Bluff power station will be drained into a tributary of the James River on which its located near Palmyra — despite opposition from hundreds of public commenters and almost two dozen state and local agencies.

Potomac Riverkeeper Dean Naujoks said his organization, represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center, plans to appeal the decision at Possum Point, and SELC has opposed the permits at both sites.

“The water board got it wrong,” Naujoks said on his way back from the hearing in Richmond on Thursday. “They failed the public today.”

The groups, along with the Sierra Club, already had filed a notice of intent to sue over the presence of outdated coal ash ponds near Quantico Creek’s intersection with the Potomac River in Northern Virginia when the power plant announced plans in November to drain them into nearby waters.

Dominion’s transition from coal power stations to natural gas has left behind ponds where coal ash is stored with water at a handful of sites in the state.

The Water Control Board approved both permit changes with a 5-1 vote in what were the first major decisions surrounding the draining of coal ash ponds in the state. Unused ash ponds are also located at the Chesapeake Energy Center on the Elizabeth River.

Greg Buppert, a senior attorney at SELC, said he sees the decisions as a misapplication of the Clean Water Act, which requires states to use the best available technologies to prevent pollution.

“The permit authorizes concentrations of metals like arsenic many times greater than [the levels] that can be achieved with the available technology,” he said of the Possum Point decision before stepping back in to participate in the Bremo power station hearing. 

A byproduct of burning coal for power, the ash is one of the most ubiquitous types of industrial waste, with more than 100 million tons of it produced in the United States in 2012, according to the EPA. Coal ash contains toxins such as arsenic, lead and mercury that can be harmful to human and environmental health.

The Potomac River supplies drinking water to millions of people in the Washington, D.C. metro area. Among the concerns raised by the public and agencies were questions about how far coal ash contamination might travel in the tidal waters of the Potomac. 

Regarding the Possum Point decision, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality recommended that the State Water Control Board approve Dominion’s changed permit to drain the ponds, saying the toxins contained in the waters would be within state and federal limits. At a hearing in December, Buppert said that those levels are far above limits set by other states and more than six times the state’s own chronic toxicity standard for aquatic life.

Martin Gary, executive secretary of the Potomac River Fisheries Commission, expounded on the potential impact of the permitted discharges on local aquatic life at the hearing. The Commission already had raised concerns about toxic discharges in an area that is “located at the heart of a historical spawning reach for Atlantic striped bass,” but Gary added that recent fisheries surveys have found Atlantic sturgeon — listed as endangered in the Chesapeake Bay by the National Marine Fisheries Service — near Quantico Creek’s intersection with the Potomac.

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources also wrote a new 8-page letter to the Water Control Board opposing the permit. The letter details the impact that heavy metals and other toxins present in coal ash can have on aquatic and human health in and along the states’ shared river and the Chesapeake Bay.

Their letter of opposition joined nearly 500 other public comments issued during the comment period, in which almost 20 public agencies participated and several state and local lawmakers.

To learn more about the project, read our previous coverage about the public hearing in Woodbridge in December and organization’s first indications that they might sue early last year.