SELC, James River Association reach settlement with Dominion on coal ash wastewater

Recent negotiations with Dominion Power were aimed at stablishing stronger standards for the discharge and treatment of water on top of the coal ash ponds, shown above, at the utility’s Bremo Bluff plant along the James River. (© Jovian Sackett/SELC)

SELC attorneys have helped negotiate a settlement that ends one part of the coal-ash saga at the Bremo Bluff Power Station, where Dominion Virginia Power had a permit to dump polluted water into the James River.

The James River Association (JRA), represented by SELC, has reached a compromise with Dominion. Dominion has agreed to clean the water far more thoroughly than was required under the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) permit. In exchange, JRA has dropped its appeal of the discharge permit.

The original DEQ permit would have allowed water with unhealthy concentrations of arsenic and toxic metals to be dumped into the James River. The permit allowed for a 2,000 foot long “toxic mixing zone,” where the polluted water would mix with the river water. The settlement agreement calls for better cleaning of the water before it leaves the Dominion plant so that it will not be toxic when it hits the James River.

“Dominion is moving forward with dewatering at Bremo now.  It will be the first such dewatering in Virginia,” said Brad McLane, the SELC Senior Attorney who negotiated the agreement. “This process is moving quickly, while the legal system tends to move slowly. JRA and SELC struck a good agreement to protect the James River on day one when dewatering begins.”

McLane said the settlement is not binding on any other Virginia coal-ash case. He said it was JRA’s decision to reach an agreement with the utility.

“Is it a perfect agreement? No. It is a compromise,” he said. “But overall it is a strong settlement. DEQ failed to protect the river. Thousands of Virginia citizens, families and communities have spoken out in opposition to DEQ’s lax, wastewater permits. Dominion is hearing that opposition and has entered into a meaningful commitment to go far beyond the weak requirements in DEQ’s permit to protect the river.”

 Not long after the settlement was announced, the Potomac Riverkeeper said his organization would hold out for even stricter standards.

“DEQ should be ashamed of its complete failure to write permits that protect the James and Potomac rivers,” Dean Naujoks, the Potomac Riverkeeper, said in a statement Tuesday. “At the very least, this appeal forced Dominion to agree to clean the Bremo wastewater better than the DEQ permit required. That by itself speaks volumes about the DEQ permit.”

The agreement on the Bremo Bluff water-discharge permit does not affect what is below the water at the plant, namely the coal ash itself. Coal ash contains arsenic, chromium, lead, and cadmium, all toxic to river life and human health. Records show some of Dominion’s coal-ash pits have leaked toxins into groundwater and rivers for decades.

SELC is pushing Dominion to follow the lead of similar utilities in South Carolina. There, utilities are excavating the coal-ash and moving it to dry, lined storage pits away from waterways. Dominion’s plans are to drain the water from the coal-ash ponds, but to simply cap the ash and leave it where it is.

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