An environmental group was threatening to sue Dominion Virginia Power over the mere presence of outmoded coal ash ponds near Quantico Creek’s intersection with the Potomac River when the power plant announced plans last month to do away with them — by draining them into the nearest waterway.

That proposal, outlined in a draft permit for the Possum Point Power Station, drew an impassioned crowd to a public hearing in mid-December. More than 50 local residents, public officials and representatives from regional environmental groups concerned about the proposal’s impact on local water quality presented the case against the plan. Many of them pleaded with the Virginia Department of the Environment for more time to consider the proposed changes, the comment period for which ended Dec. 14.

State elected officials and the Prince William County Board of Supervisors were among those who submitted letters formally requesting an extension of the comment period, but the request was denied. The DEQ advertised the public hearing and 45-day comment period in the required outlets, but some residents said notice in the D.C.-based Washington Times was not sufficient for those who live near the affected Quantico Creek.

“We are aware of no reason that this permit must be rushed through the process,” said Greg Buppert, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, which has threatened to sue over this and other coal ash ponds that he said have contributed pollution to local waterways for decades.

The DEQ received 175 written comments before the public hearing, where others provided additional verbal comments. Of those, only comments delivered by the company and its contractor favored moving forward with the permit as written. The DEQ will submit a summary of comments and its recommendations to the State Water Control Board for a decision at its mid-January meeting.

Legacy of coal ash

Residents near Quantico Creek said they felt blindsided by the company’s proposal to “dewater” its longstanding coal ash ponds into an unnamed tributary of the creek. But several factors are contributing to the company’s decision to suddenly do something about the ponds that some groups allege have been leaking pollutants for years.

In the wake of environmentally devastating coal ash spills in Tennessee and North Carolina, the EPA released a ruling in April that requires plants to shut down their coal ash ponds in the coming years.

Coal ash contains toxins such as arsenic, lead and mercury that can be harmful to human and environmental health. 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.

As the country turns to other power sources, states are left to deal with the massive piles — or ponds — of the coal ash that has been mounting for decades.

Dominion responded to the EPA’s ruling by announcing plans to close all of its ash ponds within three years, said Cathy Taylor, the company’s Director of Electric Environmental Services. Since 2003, the company has converted eight coal power stations to natural gas, including the 67-year-old Possum Point station. In addition to Possum Point, the transition has left behind unused ash ponds at Chesapeake Energy Center on the Elizabeth River and the Chesterfield and Bremo power stations on the James River.

In a move toward closing them, Dominion requested changes to its permits at both Possum Point and Bremo that entail draining the ponds’ waters into local waterways.

“This is a pretty new issue,” said DEQ Spokesman Bill Hayden. Dewatering coal ash ponds by discharging their contents into local waters hasn’t come up before, he said, because Dominion hasn’t closed a coal ash pond in Virginia before. “Now, they’re closing two.”

The hearing for the Bremo plant took place earlier in December, and it also drew public opposition.

“We are pleased that the process has begun to close these coal ash ponds which DEQ has acknowledged have environmental concerns. However, we must ensure that the process to close the ponds is protective of the river from start to finish,” said Shawn Ralston, James River Association’s program director.

Public response

If the prospect of draining coal ash ponds into local streams is new to the DEQ, it’s even newer to Prince William County residents who still had plenty of questions at the public hearing.

How will the tidal nature of the waterway affect the spread of pollutants in the water? What about the fish that spawn in this tidal region of the Potomac watershed?

Though the permit says millions of gallons a day will be discharged, no one seems to know exactly how much water is in the ponds since they’ve been collecting rainwater for years, or for how long they’ll need to drain.

“What incentive do we have to allow any dumping into the people’s river?” asked one commenter at the hearing on Possum Point, which also drew residents from Richmond who missed the hearing for Bremo power station the week before. “What do I gain by this?”

Representatives from local fishing communities expressed concerns about the presence of such toxins in striped bass spawning areas, not to mention blue catfish and the benthic organisms that support all fisheries.

“The area in question is highly valuable for fisheries,” said Ellen Kosby, assistant executive secretary for the Potomac River Fisheries Commission.

Bryant Thomas, water permit and planning manager for the DEQ’s Northern Regional Office, said he “wouldn’t consider it dumping” and compared the permitted discharges with those of wastewater treatment facilities.

But, environmental groups were careful to point out that the chemicals contained in coal ash are quite different.

States such as North Carolina have gone through the process of dismantling coal ash ponds and taken measures to ensure they don’t create new environmental hazards while getting rid of old ones.

Senator-elect Scott Surovell from Virginia’s 44th District said at the hearing that he plans to write legislation in the new year that would make the discharge permit being considered moot. The bill, he said, would no longer allow plants to discharge their coal ash ponds into state waterways and require them to use landfills instead. Coal ash can also be reused to make materials like concrete.

‘Ash-laden water’

Dominion already has taken steps toward its three-year plan to empty the ponds while operating under its current permit at Possum Point. The company has moved the contents of four of the five ponds into pond D, the largest one located the farthest from Quantico Creek.

Dominion plans to drain this largest pond into a tributary of the creek and then cap the coal ash at the bottom in place, according to its permit. SELC, the Potomac Riverkeeper Network and other national organizations represented at the meeting suggest this doesn’t do enough to stop pollution from seeping into the surrounding groundwater.

The power station has long had a permit to release what is classified as stormwater from the ponds, but the DEQ said that the discharge to dismantle the remaining pond would be different.

Consolidating the ponds into pond D this year has stirred up their contents, resulting in “ash-laden water” that needs to be treated differently, said the DEQ’s Thomas.

The draft permit lays out 14 toxins that could be reduced with treatment and will be monitored in the discharges. How?

“Ultimately, that will be up to Dominion,” Thomas said.

He described the process the company is likely to use as a Brita-like carbon filter followed by chemical treatments to reduce the presence of certain toxins, but the details will be left up to Dominion and its contractors.

Thomas said the water must meet “very conservative limits” on those toxins, which the company would reach by treating the water first. But SELC’s Buppert said the limits laid out in the permit are anything but conservative.

According to Dominion’s application, the water at the bottom of the pond contains arsenic at 960 parts per billion, more than six times the state’s chronic toxicity standard for aquatic life. The draft permit would require the water to be treated to a daily maximum limit of 440 parts per billion for arsenic, which would still be 30 times the limit set for similar permits in North Carolina. Other heavy metals such as aluminum, barium and boron are also present in the untreated water.

Pat Calvert, James River Association’s Upper James Riverkeeper, said in a statement about the organization’s opposition to the Bremo permit that “The permit limits that have been set by DEQ are far higher than those proposed for dewatering coal ash ponds in our neighboring state and are not sufficient to protect aquatic life or public health.”

Buppert said at the hearing that the technology exists to reduce the levels of toxins and that the Clean Water Act requires technology-based limits to be deployed in such permits.

In comparison, North Carolina set a limit for arsenic at 14.5 parts per billion in a recent permit to drain coal ash ponds.

Even before Dominion’s pivot toward draining the ponds into local waterways, environmental groups have taken issue with what they say has been unpermitted and ongoing pollution from the ponds into Quantico Creek.

Potomac Riverkeeper Dean Naujoks said the DEQ didn’t seem to know about an unpermitted “toe drain” carrying water from the bottom of one pond to the tributary until his group and the SELC, which represents the Riverkeeper Network, brought it to their attention.

Naujoks’ group collected and tested samples at the toe drain that he said contained levels of metals and minerals above safe limits. He had been out to visit the still-flowing toe drain the day of the public hearing before delivering his comments.

“We expected action,” he told the DEQ and State Water Control Board officials. “Now we have a permit (fight) on another front.”