News | June 3, 2016

Virginia DEQ’s rubber-stamp permits do nothing to stop coal ash pollution

A draft permit issued today by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality would allow the state’s largest utility to begin the process of burying toxic coal ash on the flood-prone banks of the Elizabeth River, and would do nothing to stop the decades of polluting leaks.

A second draft permit for the same project is expected next week.

Dominion Virginia Power is seeking permission to put a liner and dirt over coal ash pits, piles, and lagoons that have collected for decades at its now-closed Chesapeake Energy Center. There is no indication the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) will do anything more than rubber-stamp the plan, as it has for the utility’s other coal ash requests across Virginia.

Worse, the permits undermine citizen efforts to do what DEQ will not; that is, stop the pollution of the Elizabeth River.

The Sierra Club, represented by SELC, is asking a Norfolk federal court judge to order excavation of the coal ash—saturated with groundwater—to halt the ongoing pollution.

“DEQ should not be issuing permits that let Dominion simply pollute in place,” said Senior Attorney Deborah Murray. “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.”

While utilities in North and South Carolina have committed to coal ash cleanups, Dominion is pushing forward with a coal ash cover up. In South Carolina, for example, utility Santee Cooper is digging up decades of coal ash. As a result, the concentration of arsenic in the groundwater at the sites has plummeted.

Murray said the effort to stop Dominion’s pollution of the Elizabeth River is another example of citizens stepping in to protect Virginia’s waterways because DEQ will not.

At the Bremo Bluff power station, Dominion readily agreed to more thoroughly clean discharged coal ash wastewater after the James River Association, represented by SELC, challenged the leniency of the DEQ permits. That means regular citizens achieved better environmental protections for Virginia rivers than the state’s Department of Environmental Quality.

Given DEQ’s history of permissive permits for Dominion, Murray said it again will be up to citizens to push for tougher standards to protect public waterways.

“Out of fairness to everyone who is concerned about the ongoing threats of coal ash pollution, DEQ should not move forward with any permits while the federal case is undecided,” Murray said. “To do so would be an affront to a group of committed citizens stepping in to protect a Hampton Roads resource when DEQ would not.”

Read the Virginian-Pilot coverage of the permits here.