Dominion granted permits to dump wastewater into james amid public outcry

Photo by: Pilar Curtis
Photo by: Pilar Curtis
Photo by: Pilar Curtis

Andrew Crider, Staff Writer

The James River Association is challenging a permit issued by the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) allowing Dominion Power to dump as much as 350 million gallons of coal ash wastewater into the James river.

“We are deeply disappointed that the permit approved by the State Water Control Board fell short of fully protecting the James River when the technology to meet stronger water quality protections is readily available and affordable,” The James River association said in a press release Wednesday. “We are filing notice of an appeal to ensure that ‘America’s Founding River’ receives the same level of protection as any other waters.”

The DEQ permit was issued Jan. 21 and allows coal ash — the byproduct of burning coal to produce power — dumping to take place from the Possum point plant on the banks of the Potomack and the Bremo power station 60 miles upstream of Richmond. The permit also sets legal precedent for future such permits.

The Environmental Protection Agency, one of several government bodies regulating the disposal of coal ash, says the material contains toxic elements including mercury, cadmium and arsenic among other contaminants. Coal ash wastewater is created when the ash is mixed with water for storage purposes.

Dominion currently has 11 wastewater ponds across the state, some of which are more than 50 years old.

Dominion spokesman David Botkins said the removal of the waste water from ponds will be helpful for the environment.

“The whole issue of Dominion closing its coal-ash ponds is a positive environmental story,” Botkins said. “When the regulation came out in April of 2015, we started moving aggressively to comply with it.”

According to Dominion spokesperson Rob Richardson Dominion will be treating the wastewater rigorously beyond the requirements of the permit issued by the DEQ.

“The water at the Bremo power station is going to be filtered and it’s going to be treated and then it’s going to go into a holding tank,” Richardson said. “When the water is in that tank it’s going to be tested to make sure it’s going to meet the stringent DEQ permits.”

Richardson indicated that there was no other way to remove the waste water from the collection pond than dumping it into the James.

“Dominion is filtering and treating this water, it’s safe. its non toxic, it does not have coal-ash in it, it’s safe treated water,” Richardson said. “We live in Virginia too, we use the river, we boat on the river, we swim on the river, we take our families to the river, we are aren’t doing something that would harm the river.”

The Southern Environmental Law Center will represent the James River Association in its case. Senior attorney Brad McLane said that the filtration system Dominion says it will use will make the waste water safe enough to be drained into the rivers.

“At this point Dominion has gone above and beyond what the Department of Environmental Quality was requiring, following a really good treatment system,” McLane said. “All we are pushing for is that Dominion be obligated to use that treatment system.”

What the lawsuit hopes to accomplish is ensuring that what Dominion is doing of their own accord to treat the water is made a requirement.

“The recent test of the Dominion treatment system got arsenic down to a level so low you couldn’t see it,
if you get arsenic down to that 25 parts per billion (ppb) that’s a very safe level of arsenic,” McLane said. “Instead the permits would allow 520 ppb.”

According to McLane, the Clean Water Act requires when elements are disposed in the water that there be both a technological standard to filtration and testing. McLane said he thinks the permits fail to issue regulations appropriate for technology standards.
“The pollution limits are just too high and they are much higher than what Dominion can do,” McLane said. “Dominion has this treatment system that can get the water to a very safe level, we hope they use it, but they are not obligated too.”

Because the permits give so much freedom, there is concern that Dominion could simply not use its treatment system.

“They can save money by not using their treatment system by not using it to its max ability,” McLane said.

Dominion’s Botkins is cynical of the Southern Law Center’s motives behind filing the lawsuit.

“The Southern Environmental law center exists and survives based on filing lawsuits, that’s all they do,” Botkins said. “You have to continue to find things in the public domain to file a lawsuit to excite your membership so they will keep donating to that non-profit.”

Botkins believes that the standards the Environmental Law Center hopes to set are too strict.

“Their issue is they want the permit that the DEQ is ongoing issues to have a number on it as low as the number we are actually going to be treating the water,” Botkins said.

DEQ spokesman Bill Hayden said that the permits that were issued were structured around federal and state regulation.

“We follow Virginia water quality standards in those permits which are approved by the EPA, so the basis of the permits is Virginia law and federal law,” Hayden said.

Drew Frye, a Chemical Engineering consultant with 32 years of experience explains that the amount of pollution that the permits allow for is relatively high.

“These limits are not very low, but they do seem typical of older sewage treatment plants,” Frye said. “If you compare the limits and the EPA primary standards, they are about 100 times what is required.”

Frye indicated that both the quantity and quality of the water in the James river should allow for the wastewater to be diluted with the river to acceptable levels. Frye said that the water in Richmond is more affected by the city’s aging lead piping, than the James river.

In 2013, a city report on water quality indicated that city water contained 6 ppb of lead, where the EPA standard is 0.

According to Hayden, the processes to issue the permits has a number of opportunities for the public to voice concern. The draft permits were affected by this process after the Southern Environmental law center originally voiced its concerns.

“If we get significant public comment we can make changes to the permit,” Hayden said. “DEQ looks at the application and sees how well its adheres to the laws and regulations, we hold public hearings, we have a public comment period, and we draft the permit.”

The DEQ would not offer comment about the lawsuit raised against the permits.

Bremo power station first began burning coal in 1931, but completed its natural gas conversion in June of 2014. The plant is roughly 60 miles upstream of the city’s water intake plant on Douglasdale road.

Hayden indicated that Dominion would be required to test the water downstream in order to make sure the heavy particles would mix safely.

“When we issue the permit we look very closely at water quality issues, we make sure that dominion takes steps to check water quality and do testing, they test for a lot of kinds of pollutions and if they find any,” Hayden said.

“There is a number of testing standards and analytical standards to make sure they are meeting the standards of the permit.”

The legal action is not the first of its kind, nor is it the only protest of the State’s permit. On February 4th, a bill proposed by State Senator Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax) that would require the Dominion to dump its coal-ash in landfills died In committee.

“Coal-ash right now is being stored in a bunch of pounds around the state in six different facilities and the EPA says they aren’t allowed to be stored like that any more, they have to be stored in landfills,” Surovell said.

According to Surovell, the landfills that the power plants would like to use to store their coal-ash would fail to contain their harmful chemicals.

“The so -called landfills they want to put them in are not built to modern standards, they only have a clay liner on the bottom, Surovell said. “They don’t have a synthetic liner, they are also don’t have lining on the side and what we found is when you do that, the heavy metals in the coal-ash tend to leach out into the groundwater and eventually find their way into the rivers.”

Surovell was not motivated by the permits issued by the DEQ, but rather reacting to a coal-ash leak into the Dale River.

According to the Charlotte Business Journal, the state of North Carolina will sue Duke Energy for $6.8 million dollars after the local power company spilled 39,000 tons of coal-ash into the Dale River in 2014.

“What North Carolina legislature ordered them to dig up all the coal-ash and move it into modern landfills that are properly lined so that it would not leak out,” Surovell said. “That’s what my bill sought to do is make sure coal-ash is being store in modern landfills.”

The amount of coal-ash Dominion plans to dump in the James is 33 times larger than what was dumped into the dale.
The issue behind finding alternatives to dumping the water into the James is cost. Surovell bill would have cost between 1 and 3 million dollars. The price increases would be then passed on to dominion customers.

“People didn’t think that paying an extra one percent on your utility bill would be enough, and some people thought that paying an extra one percent on a utility bill would be to much for clean water I guess,” Surovell said. “Paying an extra one percent on their electric bill a month is a lot cheaper than cancer. heavy metal leaches out a bunch of fun stuff that is great for your complexion, like lead, cadmium.”

On Feb. 8, InsideNova last spring, Dominion power dumped 33.7 million gallons of untreated coal-ash into Quantico creek. The dumping occurs when waste water in one of the Possum Point power stations waste water ponds was drained into the Potomac.

Reacting to the dumping in quantico creek, the Prince William County Board of Supervisors announced that they would appeal the state’s permit to dump coal-ash.

“We have grave concern about Dominion Virginia Power draining Water from their sizable coal-ash ponds and emptying it into Quantico Creek and the Potomac River,” said Corey Stewart, chairman of the Board of county supervisors in a press release Thursday.

Staff Writer, Andrew Crider

Andrew Crider, photo by Brooke MarshAndrew is a junior economics major who has written for student newspapers since he was in high school. Andrew is interested in political history, aviation, photography and running. He has a tendency to refer to his peers, coworkers and bosses as “ma’am” or “sir,” but is getting better about referring to his friends at the CT by their first names instead. // Facebook

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