Coal ash stored near Virginia park linked to health risks

A couple takes their young family for a walk on a trail at Dutch Gap Recreation area, south of Richmond. The hill behind them holds toxin-laden coal ash in open, unlined pits from Dominion Energy’s Chesterfield Power Station. (© Lynda Richardson)

A new report finds that pollution coming from the Chesterfield Power Station may be leading to an increased health risk for some visitors to the nearby Chesterfield County Dutch Gap Conservation Area. Approximately 15 million tons of coal ash, a byproduct of burning coal that contains large amounts of heavy metals and other toxic pollutants, is stored in two unlined basins at the Chesterfield Power Station. The basins are in close proximity to both the James River and the popular park.

This study further reinforces what I've said all along, this coal ash pollution must be moved away from our rivers and natural areas and away from public parks and floodplains," said Virginia State Senator Amanda Chase. "Leaving this pollution in place is not only a public safety issue but a ticking time bomb that will cost the Commonwealth billions in cleanup in the long run. Virginia is the only state in the Southeast not excavating coal ash. Leaving coal ash in place puts Virginians at risk of cancer and is not an option.”

The report, prepared by Terra Technologies Environmental Services, focuses on areas in the public park suspected of coal ash contamination that are easily accessed by visitors hiking, fishing, or boating. More than 200,000 people visited the Dutch Gap Conservation Area in 2017, according to visitation data collected by Chesterfield Parks and Recreation.

Examining sediment and surface water sampling performed in the park, as well as Dominion's own groundwater monitoring data, the report concludes that "there are elevated noncancer hazards and cancer risks for recreational visitors who interact with areas where contamination from the coal ash ponds is migrating into Dutch Gap Conservation Area." The report goes on to state that, within these contaminated areas, cancer risks may be up to 10 times higher than the upper limit of what EPA considers "acceptable" cancer risk from polluted sites, and nearly 1,000 times higher than target risk levels. 

The conclusions of the report "indicate that the coal ash ponds at Chesterfield need remediation to stop the flow of coal ash contamination off-site into the Dutch Gap Conservation Area and, at a minimum, more work is needed to fully understand the risks throughout the park."

It is time to move beyond this claim that there is no health or environmental risk at Chesterfield," said SELC Attorney Nate Benforado. "This report raises some serious red flags about the long-term safety of leaving ash in leaking, unlined pits next to a popular park.”

This study is further reinforced by a prior expert's review of how water flows through the Chesterfield site. That analysis confirms that groundwater contaminated by the coal ash with arsenic, boron, cobalt, radium, and other pollutants, is flowing directly into the surrounding surface waters. Results from Dominion's groundwater monitoring wells also closely track the elevated results seen in the surface water samples analyzed for this study.

The risk assessment analysis takes a focused look at potential harm to recreational users," said Jamie Brunkow, the James Riverkeeper at the James River Association. "At this point, the data is very clear that the coal ash ponds are leaking into an active river system, and this report shows that those leaks are likely putting certain visitors' health at risk while threatening local habitat and wildlife.”

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