The Virginia town of Dumfries has asked the Environmental Protection Agency investigate whether a state regulatory agency and utility broke the law in allowing discharges to a Chesapeake Bay tributary last year from a lagoon containing power plant waste.

The six-person town council voted unanimously this week to request a criminal probe into Dominion Virginia Power’s release last year of 30 million gallons of water from a coal-ash impoundment at the company’s Possum Point power plant outside Dumfries, where Quantico Creek flows into the Potomac River.

Potomac Riverkeeper Dean Naujoks also had asked the EPA to investigate discharges from the power plant’s impoundments, which he contends occurred with little oversight from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.

“Elected officials getting involved is helpful in terms of bringing credibility to the issue,” said Naujoks. “The more EPA gets pressured to look into it, the more likely it is they’ll do it.”

The plant’s impoundments, where coal-burning byproducts have been stored for decades, have been scrutinized and subject to legal challenges in recent months after the state agency granted Dominion a permit to discharge water from lagoons containing coal ash.

Two of those appeals were dropped this week when Dominion agreed to treat water being discharged from the impoundments to a higher degree than the DEQ permits require.

But the Potomac Riverkeeper Network and the state of Maryland are still pressing their appeals that the permit for Possum Point does not go far enough to protect local water quality.

EPA spokesman David Sternberg said Thursday that he could “neither confirm nor deny that the EPA is conducting a criminal investigation.”

Naujoks raised concerns earlier this year about a previously unreported discharge of about 30 million gallons of untreated water from one of the Possum Point coal ash impoundments last spring.

After Naujoks spoke up, Dominion and DEQ both acknowledged that the discharge had occurred and said it was allowed by the company’s permits at the time. But those permits — through an arduous public process — were then revised to allow draining of coal ash lagoons only with treatment for a suite of heavy metals that was not required at the time of the earlier discharge. 

Dominion spokesman Dan Genest did not respond to a request for comment.  When asked earlier about last year’s discharge, he said that the contaminant levels met permit limits in place at the time, which controlled factors like acidity of the water. At the time, the DEQ concurred with the company that the discharge was not in violation of the company’s permit. Naujoks said he has gotten mixed messages from the DEQ director David Paylor and his staff as he looked into this specific discharge in recent months who, at times, said the discharge did not occur and then that it occurred at permitted levels.

There was, however, no mention of that 30-million-gallon discharge by Dominion or the DEQ at public hearings late last year for its plans to drain the rest of the ash ponds. Naujoks discovered an internal report of the release from one of the company’s contractors in December, which he shared with the Bay Journal.

The Dominion spokesman said recently that he understands why the public would view news of the earlier, undisclosed discharge with suspicion, but added that “we have laid out this process as openly as we could so that people can understand it. This was a legal discharge of water allowed under our permit.”