News | April 5, 2016

Public park, toxic coal ash side-by-side at Dominion’s Chesterfield plant

The rutted walking trail twists nearly six miles through the Dutch Gap Conservation Area, winding through woods and wetlands, past boat launches and fishing piers.

A stretch of the trail borders a six-foot chain-link fence cloaked in nylon privacy fabric. Through the padlocked gates, emblazoned with do-not-enter signs, park visitors see a seemingly unending convoy of dump trucks shuttling back and forth, sometimes followed by tanker truck showering water on the dusty road.

Behind the fence is the Dominion Virginia Power’s Chesterfield station and its massive coal-ash ponds and pits, which, according to the county’s parks-and-recreation signs along the fence, are filled each year with another 300,000 tons of coal ash.

This plant is the only one like it in the state. At its three other former coal plants, Dominion is closing its coal ash lagoons, the byproducts of an era where the state’s largest utility burned mostly coal to generate electricity. But at Chesterfield, the lagoons keep growing. It is the only Dominion power plant still burning coal—and generating coal ash—at the same time the utility is trying to figure out how to dispose of decades of the waste.

It is also the only power station so close to public parks. Its ash pits are separated from wetlands and public ponds by earthen berms. The berms hold ash piles that, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, can be 90 feet deep. Walkers on the trail bordering the berms see pipes passing under the path and water trickling into the adjacent pond. Culverts slope from the ash pits to the conservation area.

In the past three decades, ash from the ponds has spilled or leaked several times, discharging toxic metals and chemicals into the park’s waterways. Toxins linked to coal ash have also contaminated surface water and groundwater near the power station, according to monitoring results.

Dominion has been granted a permit to construct a dry, lined landfill for future coal ash generated at the Chesterfield plant. A lined landfill should prevent coal ash toxins from seeping into groundwater. It’s a responsible solution SELC has sought from Dominion, and one that utilities in South Carolina are already embracing. However, Dominion also plans to keep the existing, unlined ash pits and ponds largely as they are, but will cover them with dirt and grass in a process sometimes called “cap in place.” That, according to Buppert, will mean the ash’s toxic metals and chemicals will keep mixing with groundwater and continue to pollute the surrounding area for generations.

In an interview published in the Richmond newspaper, Buppert said, “Even though Chesterfield is building the (landfill) and will be putting the ash in the facility going forward, there’s still a massive amount of coal ash in the existing ponds. Capping in place will not stop the leaking of pollutants into the James. It is simply impossible to put a cap on the ash and stop pollution.”

Coal ash is the remnant of burnt coal. It contains a variety of toxins, including lead, arsenic, barium and chromium. In high concentrations, all are harmful to human health and aquatic life. The EPA has ordered Dominion and other utilities to close their coal ash ponds, but has not said how that must be done. Dominion’s plan, opposed by SELC and environmental groups, is to let the ash stay on the states’ riverbanks in unlined, leak-prone pits.

Buppert told the Times-Dispatch: “The bottom line is, your household trash goes to a better-designed facility than this coal ash waste.”