Dominion Virginia Power no longer plans to discharge water from a coal ash lagoon at its power plant in Chesapeake, VA, into the Elizabeth River, but now says it will pump and transport it off-site for disposal.

Though the company was seeking the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality’s approval this summer to treat and discharge the ash pond water at Chesapeake Energy Center — as it is doing at two other sites in the state — Dominion officials said they have decided that is no longer cost-effective for the comparatively small amount of water remaining in the lagoon. The company has withdrawn its request for a discharge permit.

The Chesapeake Energy Center lagoon contains about 2 million gallons of water covering 60,000 tons of coal ash stored on the bottom, Dominion spokesman Rob Richardson said. In comparison, the company’s Possum Point Power Station near Quantico is in the process of treating and discharging more than 200 million gallons of water from its remaining coal ash lagoon there, a process that could take up to a year.

“We just didn’t need to do that at Chesapeake Energy Center,” Richardson said. “It didn’t make sense to build the equipment and treat it and drain it there. Economically, it makes more sense to pump it and haul it away.”

Richardson said the change does not affect the company’s plans for the other two sites, where water from coal ash lagoons is already being treated and discharged into Chesapeake Bay tributaries. Some of the environmental groups worried about ash contaminants in the water were satisfied after Dominion agreed to enhance the treatment of it before releasing it. Still, most remain concerned about the company’s plans to cover and store the ash in place once the lagoons have been drained.

The DEQ has yet to grant Dominion the solid waste permits needed to store ash from the ponds in place for any of the sites. At the DEQ’s request, Dominion has also withdrawn its request for a solid waste permit to store the ash in place at the Chesapeake pond.  Richardson said the state regulatory agency asked the company to reconsider its plans to keep ash at the bottom of the lagoon once the water is removed.

The Southern Environmental Law Center has sued Dominion on the Sierra Club’s behalf over its coal ash storage at the Chesapeake Energy Center. SELC attorney Brad McLane called the company’s decision not to discharge the lagoon water there a step in the right direction.

SELC is expecting a decision any day in a federal case over Dominion’s storage of most of that ash at a landfill at the Chesapeake site. The environmental group alleges the landfill, which holds millions of tons of ash, has been leaking contaminants into the soil and nearby Elizabeth River for years. Dominion disputes that it is the source of arsenic found in the river.

If the company does decide to excavate and store the 60,000 tons of ash from the pond off-site, “that would be a good thing, but that’s still a small amount of the 3 million tons of ash at the site,” McLane said. \

Richardson said Dominion’s decision to change course over the way water will be discharged at the site has nothing to do with the pending litigation.

He said Dominion has not yet chosen a company to pump and haul water from the ash lagoon.

“We are evaluating several qualified companies to pump and haul the wastewater from Chesapeake Energy Center,” Richardson said. “And as part of that process we will make sure they are able to treat and test the water as required by their discharge permit.”

Another facility’s existing discharge permit is not likely to require the stringent treatment that Dominion has agreed to apply to wastewater from coal ash lagoons at the two other facilities. The water could be pumped and hauled to a facility like the Hampton Roads Sanitation District, which is one of the largest wastewater treatment facilities in the state.

The lagoon water could have absorbed pollutants from the coal ash it is covering, such as arsenic, lead and mercury, which can be harmful to humans and wildlife. At Dominion’s Possum Point and Bremo power stations, the company has provided water treatment beyond what the state required to remove toxic contaminants, and the company has pledged to test the water before it is discharged to ensure the treatment’s effectiveness.

For now, the permit change means Dominion will not immediately discharge the water that has collected in the coal ash pond into state rivers. But the company would not need a new permit for the water to be discharged into local waterways through another site’s permit, DEQ officials confirmed. Still, environmental groups see the altered permits as a positive sign, especially if Dominion reconsiders its previous plan to store the ash on site.

“Sending the wastewater off-site for treatment could be a good solution, if it’s receiving adequate treatment somewhere else,” McLane said. “We certainly don’t want it treated somewhere else without adequate treatment.”

Still, the SELC lawyer said he’d like to see similar precautionary action taken for the coal ash, which environmental groups are concerned will leach contaminants into the groundwater if left in place. The Sierra Club of Virginia shared that desire in a statement issued about the permit change.

“We hope that Dominion will also reconsider its plan to leave more than 3 million tons of arsenic-laden coal ash permanently stored at sea level at the flood-prone Chesapeake site,” Sierra said. “Storing coal ash permanently at that low-lying location is unsafe and a disaster waiting to happen with sea-level rise, more-intense rainfall, storms and other climate-change effects.”

Richardson said Dominion will likely decide whether to excavate the lagoon’s ash or leave it in place at the Chesapeake site by the end of the year. The company will then seek a solid waste permit from the state.

“What I think this says is it’s not a one-size-fits-all plan for all of our ash ponds,” Richardson said of the change. “We’ve got a plan in place for Possum Point, for Bremo. We’re looking at what the right fit is for Chesapeake Energy Center.”

(This post originally misstated the status of Dominion's discharge permit for the ash lagoon at Chesapeake Energy Center. The company's permit request was pending when withdrawn. The Bay Journal regrets the error.)