Environmentalists disappointed by House’s coal ash bill

A bill approved by the House last Friday would require Dominion Virginia Power to study whether its controversial coal ash ponds might pollute the water, but environmentalists say the legislation doesn’t do enough.

SB 1398 would require energy companies to identify the risks of heavy metals polluting the groundwater and alternatives methods of disposal when they apply for a permit to decommission a “coal combustion residuals unit,” commonly called a coal ash pond.

The ponds, a mixture of the byproduct of coal combustion and water, are often near rivers. Dominion has four sites around Virginia containing millions of tons of coal ash. The company hopes to close the ponds by treating and discharging the water and then burying the remaining coal ash with a protective seal.

The Senate passed the potential legislation on a 29-11 vote on Feb. 7. The bill said Dominion would have to complete the environmental assessment on a coal ash pond before getting a permit to close the facility.

Additionally, the director of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality “shall issue no draft permit to provide for the closure of any CCR unit until he has reviewed and evaluated the complete assessments and all comments received relating to that CCR unit,” the bill stated.

However, the latter language was dropped in the version of the bill that the House passed 96-1 last Friday. Under the House-approved version, the Department of Environmental Quality would not have to consider the environmental studies when granting permits to close coal ash ponds.

The House version mandates the DEQ director “shall not suspend, delay, or defer the issuance of any permit” pending the completion of the environmental assessment.

“In deciding whether to issue any such permit, the Director need not include or rely upon his review of any such assessment,” reads the new language.

Environmentalists were upset that the House Committee on Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources had removed the stronger language from the Senate version of the bill.

“There were some really important pieces that were removed,” said Jamie Brunkow, Lower James riverkeeper for the James River Association.

Brunkow said the group is especially disappointed that, under the House version, the DEQ wouldn’t have to wait for the environmental reports before granting a permit.

“You might say that the only thing that remains are some of the ashes of the first bill,” Del. Mark Keane (D-Fairfax) said when introducing the bill on the floor.

Dominion wants to close its coal ash ponds at:

  •       Possum Point Power Station on Quantico Creek in Prince William County
  •       Bremo Power Station on the James River in Fluvanna County
  •       Chesterfield Power Station on the James River in Chesterfield County
  •       Chesapeake Energy Center on the Elizabeth River in Chesapeake

The James River Association said it found arsenic and other heavy metals in the groundwater near the 13 million tons of coal ash stored at Dominion’s Chesterfield location. But leaving the ash in ponds isn’t an option, either. Both North Carolina and Tennessee have had untreated coal ash flood rivers, causing environmental damage.

Nate Benforado, staff attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, said that his organization supports the work the General Assembly is doing but that there’s still more to do.

“Most notably, whether it makes sense to continue the closure permitting process while DEQ is waiting to receive more detailed information that would help make sure we get these sites closed right the first time,” Benforado said.

The bill would apply only to coal ash pits in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, all of which are owned by Dominion.

Under the legislation, Dominion would have to include in applications for a “dewatering” permit:

  •       A description of any water pollution from the coal ash pond and possible solutions
  •       The feasibility of recycling the coal ash
  •       The possibility of removing the coal ash to a lined landfill
  •       A demonstration of the “long-term safety” of the closed coal ash pond

Coal ash rose to the forefront of environmental activism in Richmond a year ago when Dominion received a permit to release the treated wastewater from its coal ash ponds at the Bremo Power Station into the James River. The James River Association and the Southern Environmental

Law Center successfully campaigned to have the requirements of the permit increased.

The process of dewatering Bremo coal ash ponds has started, but the coal ash remains. Dominion’s plan is to “cap in place” the pits, by covering them with plastic and soil.

Brunkow said there is still risk for contamination in this method. Dominion officials say the process will not pollute the water.

Other options are moving the coal ash to another, more modern lined landfill or recycling the ash into cinder blocks and concrete.

The move to dewater coal ash ponds came after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued rules two years ago calling for the closure of dormant coal ash ponds after the spills in North Carolina and Tennessee.

The bill will now go back to the Senate, where senators will vote on the House version of SB 1398. If the Senate rejects the House version, a conference committee will be formed to work out the differences.

Julie Rothey, Contributing Writer

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