Virginia General Assembly giving coal ash storage a much-needed closer look

A bill moving through the Virginia General Assembly would start to bring the Commonwealth’s coal ash management protections in line with industry and regional standards. (© iStock)

This past Thursday, the third anniversary of the Dan River coal ash spill, Virginia legislators took a small but significant step towards addressing the state’s coal ash problem. A coal ash bill introduced by Sen. Scott Surovell (D-39) made it out of committee and to the full Senate floor by a bipartisan vote of 9-5, despite strong opposition by Dominion Virginia Power. The bill is co-sponsored by Sen. Amanda Chase (R-11).

Right now, Virginia is being left behind in the Southeast’s coal ash cleanup. Utilities in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia are planning to excavate some 75 million tons of coal ash. All of this ash will be placed in modern, lined landfills away from our rivers and drinking water sources, or recycled for use in cement and concrete products.

Virginia’s utilities, however, have refused to embrace this emerging industry standard. Despite extensive evidence that coal ash ponds are leaking in Virginia, Dominion has no plans to recycle any of their old, wet ash and is only excavating less than 1 percent for proper landfilling.

Instead, Dominion plans to leave virtually all of its coal ash buried in unlined pits. Currently, permits that would allow for such “closure” are being rushed through the state Department of Environmental Quality, but without the information and analysis necessary to understand if the utility’s proposed “capping in place” strategy will even work.

Senate Bill 1398 goes a long way towards ensuring that Virginia is taking the right approach with its coal ash. Rather than spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a hunch, the bill gets critical information into the hands of decision-makers so that the Commonwealth can get these closures right the first time. For example, the bill requires Dominion to:

  • identify existing pollution and propose corrective measures to restore water quality;
  • evaluate and analyze options for excavating the coal ash to a modern, lined landfill, or for use in cement or concrete;
  • demonstrate how the closure plan will protect against risks posed by extreme weather events, flooding, hurricanes, storm surges, and erosion;
  • demonstrate that the coal ash is not located in unsafe areas; and
  • identify at least one site suitable for recycling coal ash to use in cement or concrete.

Under the bill, DEQ must take these assessments into consideration during the permit process, and no coal ash “closure” permit could be issued until DEQ has analyzed and evaluated the assessments.

Coal ash is a complicated issue with the potential to affect us for generations. But when neighboring states are doing so much more to clean up their own coal ash problems, something is not right in Virginia. Passage of Senate Bill 1398 will help make sure Virginia is picking the best answer the first time to these complicated coal ash problems.

Today is the final vote on Senate Bill 1398.

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