News | June 8, 2016

SELC efforts lead to stricter coal ash permits; Bigger “pollute-in-place” challenge still looms

The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality has taken another unfortunate step towards allowing Dominion to seal up decades of leaking, toxic coal ash pits over SELC objections.

At the closed Chesapeake Energy Center plant in Chesapeake, and at the active Chesterfield Power Station near Richmond, the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has issued draft permits for the utility to drain wastewater from coal ash lagoons. DEQ also just issued a solid waste permit to allow for capping in place of more than three million tons of toxic coal ash, two-thirds of which is in unlined pits.

At the Chesapeake site, the action is particularly troubling because SELC, representing the Sierra Club, is asking a federal judge to order the coal ash excavated. That means DEQ is moving forward with a plan to let Dominion seal the ash in leaking, earthen pits while a federal lawsuit seeking the opposite is still ongoing.

“DEQ should not be issuing permits that let Dominion simply pollute in place,” Senior Attorney Deborah Murray told the Virginian-Pilot newspaper. “That’s especially true with a federal case pending, where a group of citizens is asking the court to require Dominion to move the polluting coal ash to safer, lined storage away from the Elizabeth River.”

The federal trial to enforce the Clean Water Act is scheduled to start June 21.

SELC attorneys did note that these new draft permits require stricter pollution controls than did the lax permits DEQ first issued at Bremo Bluff. The drained water must be cleaned to a higher degree now compared to those original DEQ permits.

That, says Senior Attorney Greg Buppert, is a direct result of both public pressure and the James River Association’s legal challenge of the DEQ leniency at Bremo. SELC and JRA insisted that the state’s environmental agency do a better job of protecting the river, and urged DEQ to more vigorously regulate Dominion, one of the state’s largest campaign contributors. Public records show Dominion once paid for the DEQ director to attend the Masters golf tournament and also covered his meals during the trip. The lax permits, and the Masters revelation, led to public protests at DEQ’s Richmond headquarters.

Still, SELC attorneys said there is significant room for improvement in the water permits.

A draft permit issued for Chesterfield, for example, allows Dominion up to six years to put in place new treatment standards under recently issued regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency. Meanwhile, the DEQ permit contains no limits for toxic pollutants that continue to be released as part of these ongoing discharges.

While DEQ’s water permits are moving in a better direction, SELC, regional riverkeepers, and conservation groups are fighting Dominion and DEQ on the next phase of the utility’s plans. Dominion seeks state permission to cover over its coal ash pits and piles with liners and dirt. That, says Buppert, will not stop coal ash toxins from leaking through the porous earthen pits, and polluting groundwater, streams and rivers. Dominion’s plans run counter to an emerging industry trend of removing coal ash to better protect the environment.

“We and Virginia citizens are seeking a full clean up, while Dominion is asking for a cover up,” Buppert said.

Buppert pointed out that utilities in North and South Carolina, and Georgia are excavating coal ash from riverbanks and moving it to dry, lined storage areas away from water. In South Carolina, that effort has led to a major reduction in arsenic contamination of groundwater.

Excavating Virginia’s coal ash pits will have the same environmental benefit, the attorneys say.

Attorney Brad McLane explains the Chesapeake Energy Center coal ash case: