A federal judge ruled Dominion Virginia Power violated the Clean Water Act through the discharge of arsenic from their Chesapeake Energy Center (CEC) into surrounding surface waters on March 23.
According to the lawsuit filed by the Sierra Club, who was represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center, the CEC has burned coal to generate electricity for more than 50 years.
“Dominion’s consolidation of waste and conveyance of arsenic through groundwater to the surface water forms the primary basis of the Sierra Club’s claim,” the case summary reads.
The remaining ash is stored in a pond and lagoons around the CEC and leaked arsenic into surrounding groundwaters that made its way into surface waters, which ultimately lead into the Elizabeth River.
According to the Clean Water Act of 1972, companies and organizations must secure a permit to release pollutants into surrounding ground and surface waters. Though Dominion does have certain permits, it does not hold the necessary ones that would allow it to discharge pollutants from the CEC, including arsenic, into the surrounding surface waters, according to the lawsuit.
However, the court ruled in favor of Dominion arguing that the Sierra Club’s claim did not yield for harsh penalties.
“Dominion is pleased that the court has confirmed there has been no threat to health or the environment resulting from the coal ash stored at its former Chesapeake Energy Center,” said Dominion’s Senior Communications Specialist Robert Richardson in an email. “As we have maintained consistently, the safety of the public, the water and the environment is our top priority.”
In his ruling last Thursday, federal Judge John Gibney asked both Dominion and SELC to submit briefs outlining a “detailed remedial plan” but did not require the complete shutdown and excavation of the ponds.
Deborah Murray, one of the SELC attorneys on the case, said she commended Gibney’s ruling but wished the court had ordered an entire clean up.
“The law is clear: when someone violates the Clean Water Act, the polluter must stop the violation,” Murray said. “Here, that means getting the ash out of the groundwater.”
According to Seth Heald, chair of the Sierra Club’s Virginia chapter, the push to excavate and remove coal ash ponds located close to the Elizabeth River is due to the river’s susceptibility to flooding.
“(The ruling) is important for all Virginians who seek to hold (Dominion) responsible for its mishandling of toxic coal ash,” Heald said. “Now we must push Dominion to do the right thing and get this toxic coal ash out of the groundwater.”
Virginia isn’t the only state with environmental organizations seeking shut downs on coal ash ponds created by energy companies. In 2015, Duke Energy of North Carolina pleaded guilty on 18 charges involving nine federal Clean Water Act crimes at five coal ash sites across the state.
On March 22, one day before the ruling on the CEC case, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe amended Senate Bill 1398 to call on Dominion to submit their plans to address the current water pollution from the leaking coal ash ponds, long-term safety risks from flooding and “evaluations of excavation or recycling for concrete options” by December 2017.
“The bill prohibits the Director of (Department of Environmental Quality) from delaying the issuance of a permit to close any (coal combustion residuals unit) pending the completion of the assessment,” accord to the bill summary.
McAuliffe sent the bill back to the General Assembly, who will review the amended measure when it reconvenes for a one-day session on April 5.
Dean Naujoks of the Potomac Riverkeeper Network said the proposed amendment is a step in the right direction.
“We’re hopeful that Virginia legislators will do the same — the people of Virginia deserve a solution that protects their drinking water and their property values,” Naujoks said.
Hiba is a senior studying broadcast journalism and religious studies. In addition to writing for the CT, she is the campus editor-at-large for the Huffington Post, a blogger for MuslimGirl.net and president of United Muslim Relief at VCU. This summer, Hiba interned with the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Washington, D.C. She previously interned with Voice for America and as a web content intern for VCU’s Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture.
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