Chesapeake coal ash site “highly vulnerable” to coastal hazards

Report Highlights the Need for Excavation, says Sierra Club

Chesapeake, VA – 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 ash is buried in pits dug as deep as six feet below sea level at the site of the now-closed Chesapeake Energy Center. 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 said flooding, storm surges, and the influx of higher levels of saltier water all conspire to put the site at high risk.

Dominion Virginia Power stores waste at the site generated from its coal-burning power plant that operated for six decades. Most of the ash is stored in leaking, unlined pits while about a third of the ash is piled into a landfill. Coal ash contains a variety of toxins including arsenic that can seep into groundwater.

Dominion wants to leave the ash buried on the peninsula that 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.”

The Sierra Club, represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center, sued Dominion in federal court over the coal ash contamination of ground water and the surrounding river and creek. The groups want the ash excavated and moved to a dry, modern landfill away from the Elizabeth River. The judge who presided over the June trial has not yet issued a decision.

At the trial, a DEQ witness 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.

In the report, scientists estimate the river will rise more than three feet by the year 2100. That 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. Higher water levels will also exacerbate flooding at the site.

Deborah Murray, the lead SELC attorney in the Sierra Club lawsuit, said the report emphasizes the critical importance of DEQ taking a much closer look at Dominion’s proposal to simply leave the ash in place.

“If the coal ash is allowed to stay on the site, the pollution of the groundwater, Deep Creek and the Elizabeth River will continue, no matter how Dominion tries to cap the ash,” she said. “This report shows sea-level rise accelerates a problem that we already know is serious. The only solution is to remove the ash.”

A copy of the report can be found here: http://selc.link/2j9pKZu

The study was commissioned by SELC on behalf of the Sierra Club.  

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