Coal ash pollution found at popular James River park

Results from recent water testing around Dominion Power's Chesterfield plant show elevated levels of coal ash pollutants. The plant, south of Richmond, is adjacent to public recreation areas and the James River. (© Mike Mather/SELC)

Coal ash toxins are leaking into fishing and boating areas from the pits at the Chesterfield Power Station, according to recent testing of water and sediment.

SELC and the James River Association recently sent test results to state officials, alerting them that recreational areas used by thousands of fishermen, hikers, bikers and boaters are being polluted with coal ash toxins.

The Dutch Gap Conservation Area and the Henricus Historical Park – both popular recreational sites in Chesterfield County – border the pits and ponds thought to contain at least 20 million tons of coal ash.

The latest samples taken from water next to the coal ash pits showed high concentrations of zinc, nickel, copper and lead, which is evidence that coal ash toxins are leaking into the water. 

“These test results are clearly a concern to us, but should also be worrisome to everyone who hikes the trails, canoes in the lake, or fishes from the bank,” said Jamie Brunkow, Lower James Riverkeeper for the James River Association. “Toxins are literally leaking out of the ash ponds and into areas that the county considers a top recreational draw.”

A sediment sample taken from a cove located between the two Chesterfield ash ponds showed “highly elevated arsenic,” according to an SELC email sent to Virginia Department of Environmental Quality Director David Paylor and Virginia Secretary of Natural Resources Molly Ward.

The test results come as the State Water Control Board will be asked on Sept. 22 to approve a water discharge permit that would authorize Dominion to drain water from some of Chesterfield’s coal ash ponds. The draining is in preparation for Dominion Virginia Power’s eventual plan to bury the ash on the banks of the James River.

“The recent test results also confirm the Chesterfield coal ash pits and ponds are leaking toxins, but what is most troubling is that the pollution is seeping into water that draws fishermen and families,” said Brad McLane, an SELC attorney. “And, under Dominion’s plan to bury this coal ash right where it sits, on the banks of the James River, this pollution could continue forever.”

SELC and JRA are urging the water-control board to require the DEQ to revise the water pollution permit to impose stronger protections of the James River before DEQ issues the permit to Dominion.

SELC and JRA are also opposing Dominion’s plans to bury the coal ash at the site, and instead are advocating for a better solution that will stop the leaching of heavy metals and other toxic pollutants into the James River.

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