Buried Chesapeake coal ash “highly vulnerable” to coastal hazards

A new study demonstrates that the millions of tons of toxin-laden coal ash stored behind this earthen dam at Dominion's Chesapeake Energy Center is particularly vulnberable to sea-level rise.  (© Mike Mather/SELC)

More than two million tons of coal ash buried on the banks of the Southern Branch of the Elizabeth River is “highly vulnerable” to both Atlantic storms and sea-level rise, according to a new report from coastal scientists.

The report, commissioned by SELC on behalf of the Sierra Club, highlights the dangers of keeping the coal ash in place, which is the plan Dominion Virginia Power has proposed for the six decades of waste it generated at the site.

The ash is stored in leaking, unlined pits dug as deep as six feet below sea level at the site of the now-closed Chesapeake Energy Center. Another million tons is piled into a landfill on top of the pits. Coal ash contains numerous toxins, including heavy metals and arsenic.

The report from coastal scientists at Western Carolina University outlines the degree to which the buried ash is susceptible to ongoing storms, as well as risks that will develop as water levels continue to rise in the Elizabeth River.

The scientists estimate the river will rise more than three feet by the year 2100, which will exacerbate flooding at the site. The influx of saltier water will cause the groundwater, which is fresh water, to rise higher and to saturate more of the buried ash, leading to more groundwater contamination leaching from the ash.

Dominion is asking the state environmental officials to let it keep the ash buried permanently at the site, which was once a low-lying marsh.

“The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, in evaluating Dominion’s plans, has not considered effects such as sea-level rise and more intense storms,” said Seth Heald, chairman of Virginia’s Sierra Club chapter. “This report clearly spells out those climate-change risks. It’s more imperative than ever that Dominion excavate the site.”

At a federal trial in June, experts for The Sierra Club, represented by SELC, testified that much of the buried ash remains perpetually saturated in groundwater. The experts showed the groundwater becomes contaminated by arsenic as it flows from the site into Deep Creek and the Southern Branch of the Elizabeth River.

A DEQ witness testifying during the trial confirmed that DEQ has not considered sea-level rise in evaluating Dominion’s plans to cover the ash with a liner and dirt and leave it in place on the peninsula.

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