More than 150 people crowded into a high school cafeteria in Virginia’s Prince William County late last week to voice concerns to state regulators about allowing a power plant near the Potomac River to permanently store coal ash in place. Environmental groups and state legislators also have complained the process to close longstanding coal ash impoundments is moving too quickly, with a lack of public information about how such decisions might impact local water quality and human health.

Dominion Virginia Power got approval from the state Department of Environmental Quality last year to drain treated water from a large ash storage lagoon at the Possum Point Power Station, which stopped burning coal for power in 2003. The company wants to store the ash permanently at the bottom of the impoundment after covering it with layers of earth and impermeable plastic. Company officials have said those layers will prevent rainfall from seeping into the ash and leaching heavy metals into the groundwater or nearby streams. 

But environmental advocates and some residents neighboring the power station testified last week that contaminants already have been leaking into groundwater and their household drinking-water wells. They insist that the clay liner covering the bottom of the impoundment is not sufficient to prevent leaks and that the company should consider alternatives to storing the ash in place.

“I’m here to ask that DEQ and Dominion learn from their mistakes and not repeat them,” Frank Principi, who represents Woodbridge on the Prince William County Board of Supervisors, said at the public hearing. “As evidenced by the crowds here, the public has concerns.”

The Prince William board filed suit last year when its members thought the water discharge permit DEQ issued to Dominion did not do enough to protect local water quality. Dominion later reached an agreement with the board and installed additional treatment measures to remove contaminants from the water before discharging it to a tributary of the Potomac River.

Principi and other board members testified that DEQ should require more information from Dominion be made public before granting the solid waste permit the company needs to cover the ash in place. That information would include test results from monitoring wells surrounding the impoundment to determine whether groundwater already is being contaminated.

Several speakers asked that regulators require the company to produce an analysis of alternatives to storing the ash in place, such as removing to an off-site landfill or recycling the ash into concrete or gypsum into wallboard material. 

After hearing more than 50 public comments at the meeting, Dominion spokesman Rob Richardson said that the company already has considered those alternatives and decided they weren’t the best fit for this site. Removing the ash to a lined landfill would be expensive and require dump trucks to make hundreds of thousands of trips on a narrow Possum Point Road leaving the site, and recycling “is not really a viable option,” Richardson said.

While the company does recycle some of its coal ash into concrete and other products, Richardson said the estimated 5 million tons at the bottom of the Possum Point impoundment is mixed with dirt and other materials that would render the ash undesirable to recyclers. 

Virginia Sen. Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax) said he introduced a bill in the General Assembly this year that would have made recycling more viable financially “if Dominion would have come to the table to have a real discussion about it.” Surovell said he withdrew that bill and another dealing with coal ash to focus on a third which passed the legislature this month in a weakened form and awaits the governor’s signature.

The bill, cosponsored by a Republican representing another Virginia district dealing with coal ash disposal, would require Dominion to further evaluate recycling and long-term storage options for the ash and make that information public by the end of the year. But a House committee stripped out a key provision, which would have prohibited DEQ from issuing any permits until that report was published. Surovell said Wednesday he hoped the governor would consider an amendment to add that and some other provisions back into the measure.

“The big risk is that if we end up making the wrong decision about how to deal with this problem and have to redo it, the electricity ratepayers end up paying twice,” Surovell said. “In addition, Dominion’s proposed solution will continue to result in toxic metals escaping into the ground waters and surface waters.”

A handful of residents who live on Possum Point Road or near the power station said at the hearing that they believe the impoundment already has been leaking and has contaminated their drinking water wells, according to tests they had conducted. Without acknowledging fault, Dominion recently agreed to hook up some residents to public water after new monitoring wells installed at the site showed that heavy metals in the groundwater were not moving as previously predicted.

Dan and Patty Marrow, who live on Possum Point Road, contended that their family’s health has been impacted by drinking water from their well for years and that state regulators have not done enough to ensure the safety of nearby residents.

“I’m begging you to do your job tonight,” Patty Marrow told DEQ officials at the hearing.

Quantico Mayor Kevin Brown asked the Prince William County board to consider “all it’s available options,” including “legal action to protect the citizens of Quantico” and the county. The board will discuss its next steps at a March 7 meeting, which begins at 2 p.m. and is open to the public.

“What choice does anyone have other than begging the county to show some leadership on this?” said Potomac Riverkeeper Dean Naujoks, whose organization also has sued in the past over coal ash at the site.

Phillip Musegaas, a lawyer for the Potomac Riverkeeper Network, said at the hearing that based on DEQ emails obtained through a records request, state regulators have expressed their own concerns about whether the impoundment’s liner is sufficient to prevent ongoing groundwater contamination.

Two of the nearly 50 public comments given at the hearing supported the company’s plan to store the ash in place. Eileen Thrall and Dee Brown, who both live on Possum Point Road, said they’re more concerned about risks from trucking ash offsite on the narrow road near Quantico Creek.

Martin Gary, executive director of the Potomac River Fisheries Commission, warned that storing the ash on site could put populations of American shad, river herring and striped bass in nearby waterways at risk.

“At a very minimum, we’d like to see delayed issuance of the permit,” Gary said. His organization is waiting for federal authorities to determine whether the area is critical habitat for endangered Atlantic sturgeon, with a decision expected this summer.

The public can still comment on the proposed permit until March 10, after which DEQ officials said they expect to make a decision within 90 days. A similar public process is likely to occur later this year when DEQ considers the solid waste permit for another power station near the James River in Chesterfield County, where Dominion also wants to store ash in place.